The meetings of deliberative assemblies are run in accordance with a set of rules called parliamentary procedure. A ‘deliberative assembly’ is just any group that meets to discuss and decide on common actions. The most common codification of meeting rules in the United States is Robert’s Rules of Order.
Why do we need rules?
Can’t we just all get together and talk it out, and come to a consensus? Sure, if your group is small enough. In fact, ever since the 4th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order there is a recognition of this in the rules: for example, in small boards and committees informal discussion is permitted without a motion pending, seconds are not required, and the chairman can participate fully in debate. But for larger groups (more then about 12) you really need a bit more formality, and some kind of Rules to go by. There are several reasons for this:
- Thomas Jefferson, in his manual, said: “And whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not, is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is; that there may be an uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the Speaker, or captiousness of the members.” This way the everything is consistent and fair.
- Meetings run smoother and are more orderly and efficient using a well thought out set of rules.
- The rules also provide clear options to the members to help expedite decisions and empower members. For example, if debate has been going around and circles, the motion Previous Question allows 2/3 to close debate and proceed to a vote. If a motion is being amended a lot and it seems also that more information is needed, move to refer it to a small committee to investigate and report back a well formed motion. The rules provide these options and others.
- The rules protect fundamental rights of the members.
For Toastmasters, there is another reason: Toastmasters was founded as one of its purposes to help members become better leaders, and learning parliamentary procedure is part of that! Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters International was also the author of a biography of Henry M. Robert entitled The Great Peacemaker. Smedley writes: “Training in parliamentary procedure has always been one of our objectives, and Robert has been our guide.” This tradition should still continue today, and does in some clubs. There are even clubs dedicated to learning parliamentary procedure! For example:
The rules are easier than you think!
So it is important to have rules, but aren’t the rules complicated? Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised is now 816 pages long! But this book is intended as a reference, to cover many cases that rarely come up. You really only need to absorb the much smaller Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief to cover the most important rules.
In fact, it is really very important to understand that if you break the rules, that is no reason to panic! For example, if you adopt a motion and determine later that there was no second, that doesn’t matter. The rule is that if there is a breach of the rules, you must object promptly at the time of the breach (by raising a point of order). There are only a few exceptions to this rule where the breach is of a continuing nature:
- An action is taken that conflicts with applicable procedural rules in local, state or federal law.
- A motion is adopted that conflicts with the bylaws of the organization
- A motion is adopted that conflicts with something previously adopted and still in force, and is not adopted with the vote required to rescind the previous action.
- An action is taken that violates a fundamental principle of parliamentary law, including the principles involving the rights of members.
In such a case, the action is null and void and it is never to late to point this out.
The rules of parliamentary procedure are based on fundamental principles, the most important of which are:
- Meetings of deliberative assemblies are about making democratic decisions through principle of majority rule. We have business meetings to make decisions, so we should not (generally*) spend the time in discussion without a substantive proposal (main motion) pending.
- Decisions should be deliberative. Although the majority rules, the minority (especially a strong minority, greater then 1/3) has the right to heard. This is why a 2/3 vote is required to close debate (“Previous Question“). Since absent members cannot benefit from debate, proxy and absentee voting are prohibited, unless explicitly permitted by the bylaws or applicable law.
- The individual member has the right to participate equally in debate and voting, and to proper notice of meetings.
- Absentee member’s rights should be protected. For example, no substantive action can take place without a quorum, notice is required to fill vacancy’s and (usually) to amend bylaws, and business cannot be conducted at a special (“called”) meeting that is not mentioned in the meeting’s call.
*Especially in small groups, the presiding officer can permit some informal discussion while no motion is pending, unless some member objects.
Understanding these principles will help you to understand the way the rules are they way they are and help avoid the kinds of serious errors that can invalidate an organizations actions. It can also help expedite business. For example, there is often no need for a motion for routine matters that are unlikely to have any opposition. The chairman can simply say “Without objection, such and such”. This can save time and prevent the chairman from begging the assembly for a motion. If there is an objection, the chairman can then ask for a motion, or simply assume the motion and state the question. This procedure is the recommended one for approving minutes, except the wording is “Are there any corrections to the minutes?”, each correction being accepted by unanimous consent, and then finally “If there are no further corrections, the minutes stand approved as corrected”. Or if there were now corrections “Since there are no corrections, the minutes are proved as read (or distributed)”.
First: Learn these basic rules:
- A valid meeting has proper notice, a quorum and a chairman.
- Meetings make decisions on proposals (main motions). Certain main motions require previous notice, for example to amend the bylaws.
- Secondary motions exist to help the assembly to: dispose of the main motion (e.g. amend, postpone, refer), manage the meeting (e.g. recess, adjourn), and deal with other incidental matters (e.g. point of order).
Second: Buy these two books:
Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised
Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief
But only read the little one. It should only take you about an hour, and you will now know everything you need for most routine matters. But keep the big book handy!
Third: BE BOLD!
Participate actively in your meetings, make motions, make mistakes, have fun! If a main motion is being considered, don’t be afraid to make a secondary motion, even if you aren’t sure if it is in order or has the right wording. One of two things can happen: The chair can help you make the correct motion, or the chair also is not sure and just admit the motion. As long as “no real harm is done”, there should be no need to worry, as discussed above.
If you have questions, the Official Roberts Rules Forum is very responsive. (I am quite active on there myself!)