The council meeting at Hot Springs, South Dakota takes place on an actual stage

Setting the stage: Takeaways from our research on committee seating arrangements

In this post I sketch out some of the ideas and findings from recently published research I was involved with. I hope it will be useful for anyone thinking about how their committee seating arrangements might be improved and perhaps encourage more of a ‘scenic design’ approach. 

If you know me, then you might have noticed that I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to room layouts. You might even describe it as a bit of a disorder. Whatever the set up in the room, I have to move something (if not everything!) That’s why I’ve been doing some research with Dr Catherine Farrell (Cardiff University) and Dr Matt Wall (Swansea University) on the issues around the seating design of council committee meetings.

I know from workshops I’ve done that this is something that people involved in local government meetings can also get into. Yes, when people get their hands on the lego, their inner designer comes out and their imagination really gets to work.

I’ve also been inspired by two books. This beautiful book on parliamentary layouts by Van Der Vegt, D. and M.C. De Lara and, a little harder to find, Charles Goodsell’s ‘The social meaning of civic space’ (1988), a careful analysis of the architecture of US city council chambers.

About the research

The research centred around a survey we ran back in 2018 and thank you so much if you found time to fill it in. In total we had 157 responses which between them provided the 324 meeting observations that we used for the quantitative and qualitative analysis. The respondents included 94 officers, 36 councillors and 16 members of the public. The observations were of a mix of cabinet, scrutiny and planning application meetings.

It turns out that this is a neglected area so our work is something of a first foray. While we do not claim that our findings are definitive we nevertheless hope that they represent a useful starting point that others might build on.

If you have access, you can find the final published version of the article on the Public Management Review website here. Alternatively you can find a pre-publication version here. 

So, what’s in the research that might be useful? Well, three things, I hope, the claim that seating design matters, four useful ideas from the theatre and some pointers about size, shape and position. Let’s start with the first one.

Seating design matters

If, like me, you had a hunch that (re)arranging the seats is helpful, then it seems you are on the right lines and you are not alone. It wasn’t included in the final paper, but we asked survey respondents to rate the importance of seating design on a zero to ten scale (where 10 = absolutely essential) and the average came out between 8 and 9. I think it’s safe to conclude, therefore, that those involved with seating arrangements think that seating design does makes a difference.

A second reason why seating design matters is because there are unavoidable governance trade-offs that follow from different choices. So, for example, while a small, closed ‘board meeting’ shape is better for discussion and deliberation, it doesn’t work well for public participation. At the same time a larger, front facing senate inquiry set up is great for addressing witnesses and the public, it’s not much use if you want the committee to talk constructively with each other. You get the idea.

Of course choices may be limited for those involved in setting up meeting arrangements. Whether it’s fixed furniture, room availability or the fact that ‘we have always done it this way’, practitioners work in imperfect circumstances with limited resources. There may, however, be some small tweak or change that can make a difference and, over time, a stronger case might be made for more carefully considered seating design.

Four useful ideas from the theatre

One of the things we explore in the paper is the value of using ideas from the world of theatre to inform thinking on committee seating design. After all, committee meetings are performed – in both senses of the word. We borrowed four theatre concepts and used them to inform our analysis. Maybe you might also find them useful?

Think about your governance intention

When thinking about a new set, theatrical scenic designers start by trying to understand the intention, or purpose, of the performance as captured in the script. While there may not be a single script for a committee meeting, different components can be identified such as the agenda, reports, directions from the chair etc. Beyond the practical considerations (do we need a projector?) it’s possible to think about different dimensions of governance and how they might best be supported. For the research we draw on the TAPIC framework. It stands for Transparency, Accountability, Participation, Integrity, (Policy) Capacity. You might also find this useful

Consider how the committee members will relate to the audience

In the world of the theatre, performances might be either presentational or representational. Presentational performance (like pantomime) breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and allows actors to address the audience directly. Representational performance, in contrast, presents a self-contained reality with audiences acting as passive observers. 

In a committee context, it’s helpful to consider whether the meeting is, at any point, seeking to directly address the public, whether through explanation or direct engagement or rather seeking to demonstrate that things are being done in the ‘right way’, with the audience ‘outside the fishbowl’. To put it yet another way, is the committee working with the public or simply in public. Each has different implications for the seating design.

Make clear the different roles being played

A third useful idea is the distinction between different actors and their roles. As with theatre, seats can be designed in ways which emphasise the roles and status of individual actors. The lead actors are the committee members and they are supported by others including those in administrative and advisory roles. ‘Accountable actors’ are those members of the executive (and occasionally officers) who give account to the committee. Members of the audience may become ‘audience participants’. It’s worth asking whether the differences between different actors and their roles is clear from where they are sat.

Attend to the different zones

As with the theatre, there are different spaces associated with public committee meetings although these are not always recognised or given much thought. In the paper we mention the stage (or official zone), the audience (public zone or gallery), and the backstage (pre meetings etc). We might also add the space from which members of the public address the committee. 

From the survey it seems that one zone that could be given more attention is the space where the audience sits. Respondents reported that it can be difficult for observers and members of the public to find a seat or to see who is speaking. Also, the view from the public gallery ‘is often obscured either by pillars in the room or by officers sitting in the way of councillors  or councillors sitting in a perpendicular row’. 

Ok, hopefully those ideas will have started you thinking. What about the actual design choices that might be made?

Some pointers on size, shape and position

From our review of the literature and our analysis of the survey we have highlighted some useful pointers and findings. None of which are likely to be surprising by the way, but we hope we have given them credibility that they might not have had before. Let’s start with size.

Different sizes

In the paper we borrow, from management research, a distinction between small (0–7); medium (8–15); large (16–30) and extra-large (30+) meeting sizes. Drawing from the same research we speculate that while a small to medium size enhances the capacity to deliberate policy, larger sizes are better for transparency, participation and diversity (although harder to manage).

Smaller meetings are seen to be better for the overall quality of governance

The survey suggests that smaller meetings are generally associated with higher quality governance although respondents were drawing on an underlying sense of governance quality rather than thinking about specific aspects of governance.  

Different shapes

In the paper we distinguish between three meeting shapes; closed (traditional committee, boardroom or conference style), open-ended or horseshoe (the curved or rectangular ‘U’ shape associated with parliamentary select committees) and front-facing (for example senate committee or town hall meetings). We speculate in the paper that a closed shape will be better for policy deliberation, and an open-ended or front facing shape better for accountability and participation.



Closed meetings are seen to be better for governance quality overall

As with a smaller size, closed meetings are generally associated with a greater underlying sense of governance quality by those responding to the survey. Although, again, respondents were not thinking about specific aspects of governance.

Front facing designs help when it comes to participation

From the quantitive analysis we found that front facing meetings are associated with participation and a presentational approach more generally.

The open-ended shape helps for engaging the public

From the text responses we found a lot of support for the ‘horseshoe’ layout as it helped committee members to engage and discuss better with the public. People were able to see councillor’s facial expressions and allow them to hear better. One said that: ‘using an open-ended or horseshoe table ensures that the members of the panel are audible and visible to anyone in the press or public seating’.

Different positions

After size and shape, we considered ‘actor position’ as a third aspect of aspect of seating design. There are many plausible, but largely untested, ideas in the management literature on this including:

  • sitting alongside = cooperation
  • sitting across the table = competition
  • sitting corner to corner = casual conversation
  • sitting at the head of the table = leadership
  • sitting closest to the leader =  higher status

For the research we were particularly interested in the distance between actors and we used this scale (proposed by Hall):  ‘Intimate’ space (up to 18 inches), ‘casual personal’ (18–48 inches), ‘social consultative’ (4–12 feet) and ‘public distance’ (12 feet+). The suggestion here is that different distances imply different modes of talking. So, for example, while ‘casual personal’ conversations allow individuals to monitor each other’s non-verbal communication and thereby work in a more personal and co-operative way, so ‘public distance’ conversations lead to more formality as people broadcast one-way without being able to easily register the non-verbal cues of others. This implies that people need to be closer together for policy deliberation but at public distance for a better performance of accountability.

Separate positions help when it comes to accountability

Both the quantitative and qualitative data suggested that having clear distance between actors promoted the perception of accountability. As one survey respondent put it, there should be ‘a clear line between those taking decisions and those who are invited to speak, councillors, the public and officers’. Overall, we also found that ‘key aspects of governance are enhanced when there is physical space, at least 4 feet between the principal participants of meetings and those attending to offer their advice’.

And finally…

At the time of writing this (May 2021), committees look like they will soon be moving back into physical spaces having been virtual for over a year due to the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if the virtual experience has given people a new perspective on their physical meetings and the ways in which they do, or don’t, support good governance.

I hope that these ideas will be helpful. I also hope that there will be more recognition of the ways in which different design choices afford different aspects of governance. While recognising that every council, every committee and every committee room is different, to me, the scope for more scenic design nevertheless seems obvious. Well, I am a bit of a geek when it comes to meeting layouts.


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