Many meetings do not need to be noted in full, but action points should always be noted, and the note circulated to all present, and to anyone else who needs to be aware of decisions. It is particularly important that names and time scales are attached to action points.
Full notes must always be prepared of discussions of important subjects. This is to avoid or resolve later disagreement about what is said, and/or to communicate views and decisions to those who need to know about them. See also my advice on how to get the best out of meetings.
Notes of formal meetings are known as Minutes (with a capital M).
Contrary to popular perception, civil servants' notes are clear and unambiguous. The Cabinet Minutes Style Guide offers excellent advice. Here are some extracts - advice which you should follow whenever you are writing any meeting note:
- Err on the side of inclusion of detail. Current records are fuller and more detailed than in the past. This is a conscious choice.
- Do not write the Minute verbatim. While the Minute usually records things in the order in which they were said, sometimes a bit of reordering helps the Minute flow more smoothly. This should not be overdone, but nor should you feel excessively constrained.
- Include the politics. If people disagree, it should be recorded (politely). It is particularly important to record differences of view across parties in a coalition government. Include criticisms of previous Governments, e.g. “the previous Government’s policy in this area had not achieved its objectives...”.
- Do not be afraid of colour, and try to capture people’s original words – within reason. If a Minister says something or someone has been “exasperating”, the Minute shouldn’t say it had been “difficult”. Conversation also shouldn’t be watered down through excessive use of civil-servantese, such as “probably”, “seemed to be”, “could be seen as”, “likely to be”, or “would be seen as”. If somebody says something should be done, do not say it should be “considered”;
- Use active and personal language (not “there was a need” or “in terms of”). Having said this, “it was important to...” is a reasonable way of recording “we must...”;
- Check the facts and be as precise as possible. Often it may be unclear what a Minister said. Desk officers in the Secretariat can consult with a minister’s private office to ensure factual accuracy. Quite often, the Minute needs to add to what a minister has said. For example, “Employment had risen by 4 per cent” is not enough, even if it’s all the minister said. The Minute will need the time period over which this had taken place, e.g. “between 2010 and 2014”, in order for future readers to understand the point;
- Finally, keep sentences crisp. Cut them in half if they are getting too long.
- And this is a nice story/example:- Nicholas Bevan reported that he had in 1973 taken the minutes of a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister that discussed a paper prepared by officials. Mr Heath opened the discussion by describing the paper as "f***ing awful". After taking advice from colleagues, Mr Bevan recorded the Prime Minister as having "expressed reservations' about the paper.
Grammar, punctuation, etc.
- If you have not read Lynne Truss’s excellent book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, we would recommend it.
- Dates are expressed: 31 January, 1 March, 2 June;
- Use the words for numbers one to twelve (subject to the bullet below), but figures for numbers higher. E.g. “Twelve people had been killed in the blast, and 40 had been injured”;
- Having said this, percentages or statistics always use figures. E.g. “GDP had risen by 1 per cent”;
- If you have to express a half, follow the same convention as above. So: “The grant scheme had been in place for four-and-a-half years and had increased employment by 5.5 per cent during this time”.
There are also a number of conventions for capitalisation and abbreviation:
- Government has a capital letter only when it is preceded by “the”.
- Ministers are always capitalised.
- departments and civil servants are not capitalised unless using a proper noun. E.g. the Department for Work and Pensions or the Civil Service.
- local government, local authorities and councils are not capitalised.
- Fiscal events are always capitalised, but not associated timeframes e.g. “the Spending Review” but “the summer Budget”.
- Stages of Parliamentary proceedings should also be capitalised, e.g. “Second Reading”, “Report” (but not “stage” in Report stage).
- Specific bills should be capitalised, but not when the term is used generically. So “the Housing Bill” but “there would be “20 bills”. It should also be “Private Members’ Bills”.
- Other EU countries are always Member States.
- When discussing the courts, there is no capital, but the Supreme Court is always capitalised.
- Similarly, neither are “devolved administrations” (though it would still be the “Scottish/Welsh/Northern Ireland Government” as above)
- “Parliament” should be capitalised, but “parliamentary” should not be.
- Proper nouns can be abbreviated after the first mention, so long as the abbreviation is included afterwards in parentheses. For example: The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) can subsequently be called DEFRA. Similarly, the House of Commons should be written out in full the first time but thereafter simply “the House”; the House of Lords subsequently “the Lords”;
- Very, very common abbreviations (e.g. UK, EU, UN, NHS) do not need to be spelt out in full;