An annual meeting for company management, staff, shareholders, and members of the general public to discuss issues such as company direction, policy, social and environmental impact. All participants have equal status in the meeting and discussion is run by experienced external facilitators. Aim is to create genuine constructive multi-stakeholder dialogue on issues of real concern about business purpose.
The standard framework and practice of corporate governance allows for little or no direct interaction between the executive management of a business and the general public. Corporate communications are largely handled by “communications professionals” and are intended to feed the outside world with information about the company’s trading performance, product launches, acquisitions and disposals etc. Information flows outwards from the company through strictly controlled channels and interaction with shareholders or the wider public is equally controlled.
The Annual General Meeting is open only to shareholders and is usually a forum for little more than the presentation of a tightly drafted report by the CEO, the rubber stamping of elections to the board and a Q & A session of limited open-ness and scope. The format is one of the board on a platform and the shareholders in the floor of the meeting; and by and large the former address the latter. Even when the meeting does have contentious issues to deal with (such as in an increasing number of cases recently over executive pay), the debate is usually oppositional and fractious in nature - there is no real mechanism to create constructive dialogue between the different sides.
At least shareholders have a recognised forum in which they can communicate directly with the management of a business. Customers and other members of the general public can usually only register their opinions of the company and its actions through their purchasing decisions or by contacting a Customer Relations manager, neither of which is likely to prove a very satisfying or productive means of communication. Or they can start a campaign if they want to try to alter some aspect of the company’s behaviour but that is time consuming and is in any event “oppositional” in nature and so likely to generate as much heat as it does light.
This means that there are no real channels currently through which the management of a company can engage in a constructive, open and democratic conversation with the public about the sort of issues that are becoming increasingly urgent. These include questions about what the purpose of business should properly be (if it is not simply to try and maximise shareholder returns in the short term) - for example, what is the impact of business on:
- The environment: on climate change, pollution and on natural resource depletion
- Local communities and national economies - on employment, planning and democracy
- Global inequality of wealth and income
Our solution is for all companies to hold, in addition to their AGM, an Annual Public Meeting (APM) every year. The purpose of these meetings would be to provide a forum for constructive, open, and purposeful discussion between the company’s management team and representatives of many different sectors of society about the company’s purpose, policies and practices and its impact.
The meetings would work as follows:
- The company would appoint independent and appropriately experienced facilitators to convene and facilitate the meetings.
- The company would create an independently moderated online public forum on its website on which members of the public could ask questions, make suggestions, offer constructive criticism and encouragement to the company’s management. The management can in turn respond and make suggestions or ask questions of their own. The threads on the forum could reflect key questions of interest such as: “How can our company best serve the wider community?”; “How can we move away from profit maximisation as the primary goal of management?”; “What would our business look like if we did nothing that did not build human and social capital?”.
- Once every year, the facilitators would convene a meeting open to the general public: everyone from employees and shareholders of the company to campaigners, lobbyists, customers, students, MPs, councillors, the unemployed and so on. The agenda of the meeting would be determined by a free vote on suggested motions submitted on the company’s public forum. It would be attended by the CEO and as many of the executive management team as practically possible. Places would be open on a first come, first served basis, with rules to prevent block-booking by particular interest groups.
- The meeting would last a full day and would be designed and run by the appointed facilitators. The rules of the meeting would include:
- Everyone participates on an equal footing with each other, irrespective of job title or position
- The participants agree to enter into discussion with open minds, respectful of opinions that differ from their own and willing to engage constructively in identifying areas of common ground
- No one is completely right, and everyone is partially right. There are no “experts” in the room - only diverse participants committed to constructive outcomes.
- The agenda is worked through under the guidance of the facilitators, whose role is to try to ensure that the meeting achieves the intended outcomes for the day.
The APMs would transform the management of business and the relationship between business and the rest of society - for the better. This would happen because:
- The public’s understanding of the challenges and imperatives of managing a business would improve
- The responsibility for discussing and developing creative solutions to complex problems concerning the role and impact of business in society would be shared between many different stakeholders, moving away from oppositional and frictional argument and inaction.
- More and better potential solutions to these problems would be created by having a much greater diversity of participants, with varying backgrounds, outlooks, experience and skills, involved constructively in working on them.
- Change could happen more rapidly and more radically by virtue of there being wider participation in the process of identifying the priorities for action and the ways forward.
The APM idea could be tested very easily and quickly by arranging an externally-facilitated workshop that would be attended by members of the company’s senior management, staff, shareholders and some members of the public. The topic would be “How might an Annual Public Meeting work for our company?” - or something similar.
This would give the participants an initial experience of what it is like to work together collaboratively with a diverse group of other people on an issue of common interest and importance. It would allow them to voice questions, concerns and hopes that they might have for the APM process and to see that diversity and difference can be a source of strength, not of weakness.