Looking for Authority with Parliamentary Procedure

Photo:Lukas Gojda on Adobe Stock
Recently, a friend and mentor of mine shared this Wall Street Journal article about how the British Parliament's fierce debate over Brexit has prompted many MP's to bombard parliamentary clerks with questions of procedure according to Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice (which is basically the House of Commons' rules of order). The article, which chronicles the new-found popularity of otherwise under-appreciated procedure wonks, reminded me of how crises and contentious issues can often affect any deliberative body: everyone is suddenly really concerned about how the decisions should be made!

From both working in the governance space and being involved in my community, I have seen how members of “deliberative" bodies get really twitchy about procedure, particularly when contentious issues are on the table. I've worked large assemblies where members would flood the Parliamentarian’s consultation hours wanting to strategize over certain motions. I've attended church synod assemblies where proposed actions would get stalled by process questions. I also once served on a church board that, anticipating some legal yet very controversial motions to come forward at an annual meeting, brought in an outside parliamentarian to advise the proceedings.

To me, these examples illustrate how in the every-day, noncontroversial life of nonprofits, rules of procedure can be easily taken for granted. I know of very few nonprofits that don’t name some kind of parliamentary authority in their bylaws (most common is Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised or RONR). Yet, beyond referring to a cheat-sheet for making motions at board meetings, it can be difficult for some nonprofit leaders to feel confident that they are applying parliamentary procedure at an appropriate level.

Knowing what level of parliamentary engagement is necessary or appropriate can sometimes feel like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Whether an organization's use of procedure is too little or too big can be difficult to assess, especially if you're an outsider. But it's also kind of a "know it when you see it" sort of situation. I find that there is a noticeable spectrum for how nonprofits tend to use parliamentary procedure on a regular basis.

On one end, there are those organizations that tend to play fast and loose with the rules. Their adherence to parliamentary procedure is typically limited to basic standards for making and carrying motions. They may even evolve some informal ways of doing things without formally adopting special rules or verifying that those actions are consistent with the parliamentary authority. I worry for these organizations, especially when the proverbial "Brexit" happens, because they aren’t likely to have a strong understanding of procedure to fall back on in order to navigate dicey situations.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those boards and assemblies that take the rules of procedure so seriously that their meetings become overly formal and constrictive. This can be a problem when, for example, more time and energy is spent making a motion than debating a motion. Of course, some nonprofit governing bodies are so large that strict adherence to procedure is absolutely necessary to ensure an orderly and efficient disposal of business. But sometimes staunch adherence to the rules can sometimes keep a deliberative assembly from “cutting to the chase” on certain issues, especially those that may be nonissues according to the organization’s values and culture.

So where does this leave those nonprofits that are trying to figure out what their actual relationship with parliamentary procedure should be? Is there a safe middle ground?

Not being a registered or certified parliamentarian myself, I have to punt that question to experts like Jim Slaughter, esteemed parliamentarian and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parliamentary Procedure Fast Track. He offers great insight in his article Matching Parliamentary Procedure to Needs, noting that RONR in fact recommends formal use of parliamentary rules more for larger bodies than for smaller boards. At the same time, he underscores the legal implications of not conducting all meetings according to an appropriate level of parliamentary standards. He states:

"While parliamentary procedure takes on many forms, association leaders must be aware of the basics of parliamentary procedure. Such knowledge can enhance leadership credibility and make the difference between official actions and illegal ones. But the benefits of a meeting run according to parliamentary procedure extend beyond questions of liability. A presiding officer who properly applies parliamentary procedure has a better chance at turning long, confrontational meetings into short, painless ones."
-Matching Parliamentary Procedure to Needs,
retrieved from www.jimslaughter.com

Another parliamentarian (who happens to be my dad), once put it to me like this: "The bigger the assembly or the hotter the issue, the more formal and precise an assembly should be in its use of parliamentary procedure." Because, just as Mr. Slaughter put it, there are significant legal implications and liabilities associated with not adhering to parliamentary procedure. Those who name RONR in their bylaws, are in fact legally bound to those particular rules and could be subject to exposure if they are not followed properly.

That said, "proper adherence" is not necessarily the same as "perfect application" of these procedural rules. As I have learned from experience, an organization's unique customs and organizational culture still play a key role in determining how formal and exacting a board or assembly will be in employing procedure.

For example, the proceedings of a church members' meeting may be a bit more relaxed and laid back than say, a charter school board holding a public meeting. The chair of the church meeting may prefer to be more free-flowing in how she recognizes members. She may not require them to stand or even refer to her as "Madam Chair." However, when it comes down to holding an election or voting on a motion, that same chair should still be ready to facilitate those actions in accordance with the rules, even if in doing so she may not seem as formal or stuffy as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Nonprofit leaders who feel confused or overwhelmed by issues that are spurring deeper procedural questions should rest assured that the best thing you can do is to commit to finding the right answers. For some this might mean consulting a professional parliamentarian and possibly retaining their services throughout the year. Other organizations, particularly those with limited resources, could benefit from embedding knowledge of parliamentary procedure into their governance structure, in part by recruiting one or more board members with that particular skill-set.

One of the cool things about parliamentary practice is there is a great tradition of involved citizens and community leaders who have self-educated and become bona fide parliamentarians -- just to be an asset to their respective community. Organizations such as the National Association of Parliamentarians and the American Institute of Parliamentarians provide essential support and resources to those who aspire to an advanced level of parliamentary expertise. Nonprofits that support that kind of formal competency-building would surely benefit when it comes to staying compliant with their rules of procedure.

As I write this, it occurs to me that promoting a tradition of self-study leading to voluntary certification in parliamentary procedure is probably something better demonstrated than preached. Expect more from me on this later!

Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. Learn more at www.millerbleichconsulting.com 


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