learning from Robert’s Rules?

I have never been good at Robert’s Rules of Order, even though decades ago I was the president of a student government that supposedly used them. Looking at the by-laws of incorporated boards and bodies that I serve on now, I see that several include language like this: “Except as may be modified by resolution, Robert’s Rules of Order (current edition) shall govern the conduct of [association] proceedings when not in conflict with [state] law or these By-Laws.” Indeed, I’ve found an estimate that “approximately 95% of the organizations in the U.S. prescribe Robert’s as their parliamentary authority.” However, lots of important but informal groups don’t have by-laws, and those that do often seem to pay little attention to their own provisions about Robert’s Rules.

I probably wouldn’t advocate applying Robert’s Rules much more widely than they are used now. Learning–or recalling–the Rules can be burdensome; depending on them can shift power to people who happen to know them already; and they may conflict with contemporary cultures. After all, they were written by a US Army officer in 1876.

Actually, Brig. Gen. Roberts was an abolitionist Southerner who fought on the Union side and did other worthy things, so he may deserve some consideration. In any event, his Rules embody wisdom, and all groups that make decisions should find ways to accomplish some of their fundamental goals. As Roberts wrote in the first edition of his Rules, it was “really not of so great importance” whether his own processes were the best. What was–and remains–important is to adopt transparent ways of operating in order to avoid “the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members.”

That lesson has been re-learned in very different contexts. By 1970, the feminist activist Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, had become frustrated by the emphasis on “leaderless, structureless groups” in the women’s liberation movement. She acknowledged that women were reacting “against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.”

However, Freeman claimed that all groups have structure, and when they purport to be leaderless and free, it just means that the authority is opaque and therefore unaccountable.

She wrote, “At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom.” Those in the core of an informal group “will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively [to each other], and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the ‘outs’ whose approval is not necessary for making a decision.”

Freeman saw supposedly leaderless groups as tyrannical. “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.”

Specifically, groups need explicit rules for delegating authority, sharing information, rotating responsibility, making clear commitments, and holding their own decision-makers accountable. These are the very purposes of Robert’s Rules. If we don’t want to use that document, we need alternatives.

I observe the following deficits in many informal groups’ discussions. First, groups are often not clear about what they have promised, so that members and others can know what to expect. An approved resolution is a commitment. If your group doesn’t vote on resolutions per Robert’s Rules, you need other ways to make clear and official commitments.

Second, it is often unclear what the group is doing at a given moment. Is it discussing a choice prior to making a collective decision? Are individuals giving advice to a person or small team who will make the decision? Are members sharing information with each other? Is the group exchanging perspectives on the overall situation and values? Is the task to identify problems and brainstorm options?

These are all valid activities, but they need to be distinguished. Robert’s Rules does so by allowing any member to offer a motion, which (if seconded) becomes the sole topic until it is resolved. A motion must be stated in such a way that it can be adopted or rejected by a vote. Thus, when a motion is on the table, the group’s task is to discuss it in order to inform the individuals’ votes, not to canvass individuals’ advice or share information. A different motion can be offered next, but it must wait its turn.

Informal groups waste precious time and energy–and become frustrated–when they are not clear on what they are doing. In the absence of rules of order, a moderator can keep people on track, but moderation is an advanced skill, and the power can be abused. Some groups develop other approaches, such as writing the current task on a flip chart. One way or another, it’s essential to clarify what is being done now and to allow people to propose doing something different next.

Third, groups need moments when everyone has equal power, even if they choose to empower some individuals for specific tasks. Robert’s Rules mandates voting on an equitable basis. It allows every member to introduce motions. It forbids anyone from speaking twice on a motion unless everyone has had a chance to speak once.

This kind of equality is purchased at the cost of formality. That is actually a familiar tradeoff. Official elections give each citizen one vote, and that requires ballots, voting dates or periods, and myriad other rules. Courtrooms are rife with procedures designed to equalize rights and powers.

Many groups understandably dislike formality, which seems to undermine spontaneous friendship. Yet, as Freeman observed in the women’s movement, informality breeds inequality. Groups must be able to shift to formal processes that protect equality at decisive moments.

Fourth, groups spend too much of the precious resource of time discussing matters that should delegated to individuals or small teams. A whole group is usually too large to function effectively. Many tasks do not present controversial issues that require broad discussion and participation; someone should simply do the work. At the same time, it is important to clarify what has been delegated to whom, to hold the responsible people accountable, and to give them explicit recognition for their service. Robert’s Rules accomplishes those purposes by allowing groups to elect officers for fixed terms, to establish committees, and to delegate specific tasks to committees. Again, there may be other ways to accomplish these purposes, but they cannot be ignored.

See also: a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; civic education and the science of associationfriendship and politicsneeded: pragmatists for utopian experiments; and du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.