By Jim Slaughter, Certified Professional Parliamentarian
If your meetings include business sessions — such as board meetings or delegate bodies that make decisions for the entire organization — then you should know about parliamentary procedure.
Does your organization have a board that conducts serious business? If so, it’s helpful for you to have a good understanding of parliamentary procedure.
What is parliamentary procedure? It’s all the rules that govern the transaction of business in meetings. It’s not the book Robert’s Rules of Order, although that is the 800-pound gorilla of the parliamentary world.
Why does procedure matter? Many organizations dictate in their governing documents that a particular parliamentary book will be followed when transacting business. State statutes often require corporations, nonprofits, or government bodies to follow specific rules during meetings. Ignoring or incorrectly applying these procedures can lead to embarrassment, hard feelings, and lawsuits.
Which Robert’s? There’s only one official updated Robert’s - Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition), published in 2011. Each new edition brings changes to procedure; the 11th Edition has 120.
Different rules? Problems are common when large meetings behave too informally or small meetings behave too formally. Large meetings must be fairly formal. However, Robert’s recommends less formal rules for small boards and committees, including no seconds to motions, no limits on debate, and the chair can debate and vote. Smaller boards may follow more formal procedures if they prefer, particularly for controversial or important decisions.
Meeting setup This is where a planner really needs to pay attention, because the wrong environment can quickly cause a meeting to fail. Here are some suggestions:
Auditorium-style seating usually leads to less participation, while a circular arrangement can make it difficult to stop participation. For smaller meetings, a horseshoe pattern encourages involvement yet acknowledges that the chair is leading the meeting.
A well-planned agenda has a start and end time for the meeting (and possibly for each agenda item).
While placing all leaders on stage has political appeal, it can project an us-versus-them mindset.
Pro and con mikes for a large audience can be problematic because issues are fluid - neither pro nor con.
Don’t let visual considerations override functionality - some boards sit in a straight line for audiovisual purposes, but then its members can’t see each other.
Large screens for text can help with the wording of amendments and other proposals.
Transparent lecterns look great until they’re cluttered with papers.
Freestanding lecterns tend to isolate the presiding officer and hinder staff from giving needed advice. A second lectern to the side allows reports from others without displacing the chair.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, and the author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Parliamentary Procedure Fast-Track and lead author of Notes and Comments on Roberts Rules, Fourth Edition.