God save us from committees. They’re an increasingly outdated way of getting things done. But there’s a certain sort of person who loves them. What’s worse, they want you to love them too.
Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes as the parent of a school-age child will be familiar with the emails. ‘Joyce has now served as treasurer of the committee for seven consecutive years, and really does want a break. Please can someone volunteer to take over? It’ll only take a few hours of your time each month — and it can be great fun!’ Yeah, right.
Then comes the emotional blackmail. ‘I’m sure your child loves attending the club every week, and all the great activities they get up to there. Now’s your chance to give a little back! Come on, you know you want to help out!’
OK, I know there’s always a certain amount of admin that needs doing. Someone’s got to fill in the forms about the village hall being insured and no one being a nonce. But there are three reasons I feel zero guilt about it not being me. Firstly, I’m useless at it. Forms have never been my thing, and I’m not one of nature’s organisers. Put me on a committee and it’ll only be a matter of time before the first lawsuit arrives.
Secondly, I do help out — just in ways that actually achieve something. Boots on the ground, if you like. Each year I run a magic club at my son’s primary school, teaching the kids card tricks and mind-reading effects. I do talks at Barney’s Cubs group, and go along on their map-reading hikes. Every home football match finds me putting up goals and fetching corner flags from the shed. So forgive me if I refuse to be seconded as health and safety officer.
The main reason I’m determined never to sit on a committee, however, is that they don’t really need to exist any more. This isn’t the old days, when discussions required everyone to be in the same room. Now you can run almost every aspect of an organisation remotely. Week-to-week logistics can be handled via WhatsApp. Finances can be done by PayPal. Even the crustiest old technophobe understands emails and texts, so they’re fine as back-up. In fact, modern communication has changed the nature of many clubs and groups — instead of having their course set once in a while by committee, they can be constantly nudged in the right direction by everyone involved.
And maybe this is why committee members are unhappy. The phrase ‘committee man’ used to mean a chap, often ex-military, with a clipped moustache and a trusty blazer. These days the uniform has changed — you’ll spot a committee type (of either sex) by their fleece and hi-viz. But the personality remains the same. These are people who love committees for their own sake. They like nothing more than an agenda, a set of accounts and four or five hours to discuss them. They like things to be done properly. They get annoyed if you accidentally mention something too early in the meeting that should have been saved for ‘any other business’. They become physically aroused by the word ‘quorate’.
In short, they love the sound of their own voices. These are the politicians who never made it to the Commons, the actors who never made it to Rada. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them hold pretend committee meetings at home, on their own, a pile of A4 and a neatly sharpened pencil at each place round the kitchen table. ‘Can I have someone to propose that?’ they ask, before replying ‘Proposed, chairman’ in a ventriloquist’s voice.
But that doesn’t get them off properly. For the real kick they need a real committee, a group of people who will sit around the table with them and go through the motions (literally). Ideally they want others in their own mould, committed committee types. Or maybe folks like Joyce, who are prepared, however reluctantly, to do a long stretch. They’ll even settle for an ever-changing rota of short-term stand-ins, despite that making them look like the only original member of a 1960s rock band, surrounded by younger session musicians. As long as they get to say ‘point of order’ and vote on last month’s minutes, they’re happy.
For a while, that is. Of course in the end what these people are really after, the fundamental reason they love committee life in the first place, is the opportunity to fall out with someone else on the committee. Just as Barcelona fans define themselves as much by a hatred of Real Madrid as a love of Barcelona, so every committee has within itself the seeds of a split. The Judean People’s Front is never far away. If there’s a word the committee type loves more than ‘quorate’, it’s ‘caucus’.
And this, deep down, is the reason I refuse to get involved. Committee types live for the chance to complain and bitch, to moan about other people and what they’ve done, or rather not done. By refusing to serve on the committee in the first place, I’m giving them exactly what they want.