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Parliamentary Procedure in a Community Group

Roberts Rules of Order

If you are in an organization and need to know more about Robert's rules click here. There is a new chapter in the book especially for HOA's.

Welcome to the PARLIAMENTARY INTERNET NEWSLETTER. This newsletter is for all those who are interested in learning about better meeting procedures, and the preserving of democracy in small groups, organizations, churches, schools and government organizations. We promise to keep the information simple so that all can understand; and we promise to try to answer any questions that you may have concerning any problems in your meetings. We will answer any procedural questions that you have,too. We are most familiar with the parliamentary authority of ROBERT'S RULES OF ORDER, NEWLY REVISED, 1990 Edition. But we have access to THE STANDARD CODE OF PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE, by Alice Sturgis, and to DEMETER'S MANUAL OF PARLIAMENTARY LAW AND PROCEDURE, by George Demeter.
 
  PARLIAMENTARY INTERNET NEWS LETTER   VOLUME 3 Issue 5 December, 1997   PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE IN A COMMUNITY GROUP FROM A COMMUNICATION PERSPECTIVE

This report is based on an article by Al Weitzel, Professor of Communication aweitzel@mail.sdsu.edu), and Patricia Geist Associate Professor of Communication (pgeist@mail.sdsu.edu), in the School of Communication at San Diego State University, "Parliamentary Procedure in a Community Group: Communication and Vigilant Decision Making" in
COMMUNICATION MONOGRAPHS, September, 1998.

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ABSTRACT

Parliamentary procedure is pervasive in most decision making groups of a dozen or more persons, but it is has been understudied as an important influence on the group communication process.  It is not well understood by members of groups that claim to have adopted it, and procedures are seldom invoked in ways that verify a sophisticated model.  However, parliamentary procedure need not be considered as simply a rigid set of laws.  A multi-phase research project provides insight into how parliamentary procedure is selectively used in community groups and functions as a set of rules that influences the vigilance of  the communication process.

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Parliamentary procedure skills are taught in a class exclusively for this purpose in approximately one of six (17 percent) communication departments in "four-year" colleges and universities in the USA [Al Weitzel, "The Frequency of Parliamentary Procedure Classes in Higher Education," PARLIAMENTARY JOURNAL 35 (January, 1994), 16-20].  The classes generally focus much more on the correct use of parliamentary rules than on the communication process.  However parliamentary procedure is a unique factor in many group contexts, and thus the manner in which group members communicate utilizing these rules deserves attention.  In order to do so, this research analyzes some of the ways in which parliamentary rules are practiced outside the environment of a college classroom.  Virtually no empirical research appears to have been devoted to this matter.  This research investigates the practice of parliamentary procedure in the local community, as this is the context where it is most pervasive in our daily lives.

Parliamentary Procedure Research From a Communication Perspective

Recent communication research has generally ignored parliamentary procedure, but it remains an important factor in the group decision making that permeates our daily lives.  Whenever a group of a dozen or so persons gathers to make decisions, some formal rules are usually adopted to democratize and/or facilitate the process, and very often these rules include some form of parliamentary procedure.  Such gatherings include more than 23,000 national voluntary associations, 11,000 international associations, and 53,000 regional, state and local associations.  In addition, parliamentary procedure permeates virtually all political decision making bodies and many decision making groups in day-to-day business contexts--boards, committees, and membership meetings.  A 1992 book by the American Institute of Parliamentarians emphasized the pervasiveness of such meetings:  There are more than 1.375 million nonprofit organizations in the United States.  There are thousands upon thousands of governmental bodies at the local, county, state and regional levels.  A research study, "How to Make Meetings Work," funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and conducted by Ventura Associates in New York City, reveals that more than 11 million meetings are held in the United States EVERY DAY, that middle management spends approximately 35 percent of its working day in meetings, that in top management the figure could be 50 percent or more.

This means that more than half one's organizational life could be spent attending or conducting meetings!  The typical adult American at any time belongs to an average of six organized groups, to say nothing about informal organizations.  As such, research investigating the communication process of utilizing parliamentary procedure in group contexts is clearly warranted.

Previous research in a parliamentary procedure context has lent little insight into the communication process, and the most recent systematic review of literature about parliamentary procedure in communication journals was published more than 15 years ago [Al Weitzel, "Parliamentary Procedure in Higher Education," PARLIAMENTARY JOURNAL, 21 (April 1980),16-24].  Literature prior to that time had generally focused on several themes.  One theme, the "liberal arts orientation," argued that students could benefit from "the power that goes with knowledge" and "that their leadership potential could be enhanced."  A second theme suggested methods for teaching parliamentary procedure, and a third theme centered on specific parliamentary matters, such as the role of the chair, the function of committees, or the nature of voluntary organizations.  A fourth theme focused on a "philosophy" of parliamentary procedure and emphasized that parliamentary procedure should not be a raw use of power.  Rather, it involves the use of good judgment in lieu of mechanical rules, and it should be used for carrying out the will of the group.

Relevant literature about parliamentary procedure from a communication perspective since 1980 has been scant and has perpetuated a long-standing formally "rational" model of effective decision making found in textbooks on the subject.  Examples include one article that maintained that
"parliamentary procedure determines the decision rules of argument and, indirectly, the strategies employed."  Another article reconciled parliamentary procedure practice with methods of resolving conflicts in groups, utilizing a framework that focused on avoidance, conquest, reconciliation, compromise, and award.  Both articles are conceptual analyses, not data-based empirical studies, and the authors have developed their arguments by drawing from national parliamentary bodies such as the British or Canadian Parliament or the United States Senate.

Much of the discussion of parliamentary procedure in textbooks and manuals often portrays it as "rational," systematic, and sophisticated, so one might, in turn, expect communication within any applied decision making context to conform to this model.  Participants would be excellent arguers who are very knowledgeable about how parliamentary rules can be employed in a calculated way to facilitate their wishes and/or for effective conflict resolution, compromise, and "rational" decision making.  However, communication researchers have devoted little effort to designing data-based, empirical studies to verify the practice of parliamentary procedure in real groups.  In short, such research has not investigated how parliamentary procedure functions to facilitate or constrain communication in group decision making outside of the classroom.

As such, the "rational" model of decision making in parliamentary contexts may be a myth or may deviate substantially from a "formally" rational model.  For example, it is generally conceded that legislators are not always fully candid and truthful in publicly articulating their positions on some issues in decision making contexts.  Often, instead, they engage in public posturing while concealing their motives and beliefs.  One might reason that parliamentary maneuvering and tactics might be similarly employed for the purpose of posturing.  Thus, parliamentary procedure may, but need not necessarily enhance "rational" decision making and may even serve to constrain effective decision making.

The practice of parliamentary procedure in real groups appears to have a significant impact on communication, both in terms of how parliamentary processes arise from discourse and how patterns of discourse arise from invoking parliamentary rules (regardless of the accuracy of the invocation).  And, in fact, as the literature reveals, there exists a wide variety of assumptions about how the rules function in group interaction; invocation of the rules may enhance leadership, promote good judgment, carry out the will of the group, determine decision rules, instigate strategies, or resolve and incite conflict.  Clearly, further research is needed to investigate the impact of parliamentary procedure on group communication.

Such research should adopt a perspective that focuses on the patterns of communication associated with parliamentary procedure as a prescriptive set of decision making rules.  As argued herein, a parliamentary procedure perspective is a "legal" perspective on whether and how the rules are
followed.  However, a communication perspective places greater emphasis on how members communicate, regardless of their adherence to the rules.  More importantly, by utilizing both a parliamentary perspective and a communication perspective we begin to see how the rules (following them and not following them) facilitate or constrain effective decision making in groups.

The significance of studying the facilitative and constraining effects of communication in groups has been well established in previous research. One theory, vigilant interaction theory, specifically examines the ways group interaction affects critical thinking. The theory maintains that group interaction affects decision making by directly shaping the quality of vigilance (or critical thinking), as one article explained: In short, the theory argues that the manner in which group members talk
about the problems, options, and consequences facing the group affects the way they think about those problems, options, and consequences, which in turn, ultimately determines the quality of final choices they make as a group. Since it is clear that parliamentary procedure is designed to direct talk within a group, it makes sense that, in turn, it affects the way members think about problems, options, and consequences; thus it positively or negatively affects vigilance or critical thinking.

Moreover, vigilant interaction theory describes three facets of critical thinking affected by group interaction:  problem analysis, goals and objectives, and evaluation of consequences.  Utilizing vigilant interaction theory as a basis for investigating parliamentary procedure turns our attention toward how the rules function to facilitate or constrain vigilance.  Investigating a real group's attempts to arrive at decisions and the relationship between parliamentary procedure and vigilance moves us
toward a better understanding of  the relationship between a significant group process and performance in ongoing groups.

The research reported here represents an investigation of parliamentary procedure as it is practiced in the community -- in business decisions, citizen groups, and government-related groups.  A three-phase project has been an attempt to answer two research questions: How is parliamentary procedure practiced in community groups?  And how does a member's use of parliamentary procedure affect (facilitate or constrain) vigilance?

The Research Project

A team of researchers addressed the two research questions through a three-phase research project.  The first two phases were reported in a journal article [Al Weitzel, "An Investigation of the Practice of Parliamentary Procedure in the Community," PARLIAMENTARY JOURNAL 34 (July 1993), 116-120] and on this website.  Basically, in the first phase we contacted, by telephone, nine, local, non-profit groups and six profit-making organizations to determine how parliamentary procedure was used to conduct business meetings.  We found that one-half of the public representatives of community groups in one of the largest cities in the U.S.A. do not even know what is meant by the term "parliamentary procedure," and those who were familiar with parliamentary procedure practice unanimously expressed strong regret that it was ineffectually used.  Thus, parliamentary procedure generally appears to be a little-understood process in the public realm.

In the second phase researchers observed 15 meetings of civic groups that were mandated to use parliamentary procedure and six other non-profit groups that employed parliamentary procedure.  Researchers also interviewed (in-person or by telephone) a random sample of more than 70 members of the groups, using a standardized interview schedule.  We found that almost all members felt "comfortable" with parliamentary procedure and "liked the way parliamentary procedure" was used in the group.  A smaller number felt "competent" in the use of parliamentary procedure.  A prevailing qualification by many of those who felt comfortable was revealing.  They explained that parliamentary procedure is used minimally in the groups. Most importantly, observations of the groups clearly verified that there is generally very loose application of the practice of parliamentary procedure even though the groups are mandated to use it.  There was little evidence of a formally "rational" model of excellent arguers who were very knowledgeable about how parliamentary rules can be employed to facilitate their wishes and/or for effective conflict resolution, compromise, and decision making.  Instead, parliamentary procedure was seldom employed and no evidence of calculated expertise was observed.  It was generally employed, albeit without expertise, as a very useful communication tool for group decision making.

The third phase of the research focused specifically on a "grassroots" civic group that meets monthly and is democratically elected within a specified community to advise the city council, the planning commission, and other government agencies on matters of public policy.  The objective was to identify how the prescriptive set of rules of parliamentary procedure was used to facilitate or constrain vigilance (critical thinking).  This particular group represented parliamentary usage at its
finest among the government-related groups that were observed in Phase Two of the research.  While all of the community planning groups are required to conduct their meetings in an open forum using Robert's Rules of Order, the chair of this group was one of the most competent parliamentary users observed.  Also, this planning group was the only one that functioned with a designated parliamentarian.  In addition to focused analysis on two meetings, both authors are familiar with the group, either through observations or from insight gained from knowing a board member.

Using first-hand observations and analysis of tape recordings of two previous meetings of the group, a case study of a single meeting of the group was selected for several reasons.  First, the case study best highlighted the function of parliamentary procedure in the group's communication process.  For this particular phase of the research, we thought it important to capture the "groupness" of the organization by focusing on a continuous segment of a single meeting rather than segments from many meetings.  In addition, the meetings of these civic groups do not require the use of parliamentary motions and tactics throughout.  Portions of the meetings of the grass root councils are more information sharing and opinion giving than decision making, and, as indicated in Phase Two of this project, members of these groups seem to prefer, generally, minimal use of parliamentary procedure.  However, the segment discussed here in very abbreviated form seemed to demand attention to parliamentary procedure more than others, in the opinion of the chair.  The published version of this report contains a full transcript of the lengthy sequence of discussion.

As a part of "action items," the group began by deliberating at some length whether to consider a previous business item regarding re-zoning recommendations to the City Council for several pieces of property.  There was a good deal of appropriate concern about whether it was legally appropriate for such items to be considered because they were not explicitly identified as a part of the "published" agenda.  The chair explained that an agenda was "published" because it was sent prior to the meeting to members of the group and to parties interested in some specific properties.  The tone that he set in this discussion is revealing of a very heavy emphasis on the quality of vigilance of the group.  He said, "From this point on, I think your chairman is in trouble.  I'm not exactly sure at this point."  He explained why the published agenda was "generic" rather than including specific mention of the properties to be considered, and he noted that all interested parties were not present at this meeting.  The item of business had been postponed at the last meeting as a "continuation" item.  He explained, "My problem is that I'm not sure we can take a position tonight on any of these items because of the notification, unless anyone can explain to me. . . ."

This was clearly a chair who was inquiring about how the group wished to proceed ("decision rationality"), not a calculating chair who was absolutely certain about the parliamentary wisdom of how to do so in order to assure a legally sustainable action ("action rationality").  The interactions among members further demonstrated the tentative, vigilant decision making nature of the group:  they clearly knew their objective (assessment of the task) and the parameters of acceptable procedures for accomplishing them (assessment of evaluative criteria). The chair then suggested that this item of business might be postponed until a later meeting.  Having made the suggestion, he yielded to another voice that articulated the positive qualities and negative qualities of a course of
action.

The chair remained neutral and in firm command of the meeting, invoking a parliamentary rule to facilitate the communication of the group, saying at one point: "Wait a minute.  We've got a motion.  Read the book.  It says we've got to have a second.  Let's get a second, and then we can discuss it.  Or it will die for a lack of a second.  Do we have a second?  [Pause] We don't have a second.  The motion dies for a lack of a second."

The chair was again fostering decision rationality.  Further discussion followed the failed motion, but, again, there was no evidence of parliamentary maneuvering, and the group's communication served to facilitate vigilance by prompting a look at different sides of the issue. In short, in no case was there evidence of sophisticated parliamentary maneuvering by members trying to achieve some ulterior motive or trying to constrain discussion.

The matter of what is acceptable as an agenda item for discussion warrants a great deal of concern from a legal perspective, of course, and thus is a matter of parliamentary concern.  Further, from a parliamentary perspective, this business item is a legitimate concern because there is a question of how it should be "brought to the floor."  However, there is little evidence here of a sophisticated model of parliamentary expertise. If the items had been "postponed definitely to the next meeting," they should be automatically considered as a part of "general orders," and the chair should have said so.  However, if they were "tabled" at the previous meeting, a motion would first be necessary to "take them from the table," of course.  Discussion at the meeting did not reveal which was the case.
No such motion was introduced for this first or the subsequent agenda items.

On the other hand, from a communication perspective, these legal-parliamentary matters are generally not of paramount importance. Since the first option (the business having been postponed) would not require any discussion (or "debate") and the second option (the business having been tabled) does not permit debate, according to ROBERT'S RULES, oral discourse would not be affected because there would be none. Further, the technical violation is not important from a communication perspective because it was apparent that the members wanted to consider the items.  Thus, the parliamentary rules were not invoked.  Instead, these episodes seem to represent people being vigilant simply by providing their opinion and verbally fostering "groupness."

This issue of whether and how to consider the action items was not the only technical violation of parliamentary rules at the meeting, and others can be mentioned to demonstrate some of the types of concerns that arise from a parliamentary perspective but not necessarily from a communication perspective.  In short, the parliamentary perspective is a "legal" focus on the rules, whereas a communication perspective is a "functional" one that considers effective decision making.

Some of the technical violations of parliamentary rules at the meeting that did not adversely constrain the vigilance of  the communication process occurred in successive items of business.  In one instance, on a hand-count vote, the chair asked for a record of abstentions, which is a violation of the group's adopted ROBERT'S RULES.  In a second instance, the chair failed to ask for the number of dissenting votes.  And a third example violated ROBERT'S RULES by the chair failing to announce the number of votes favoring and opposing the motion.  Finally, in a fourth technical
violation that occurred later in the meeting, a member wished to withdraw a motion after it had been stated by the chair.  The chair permitted him to do so without first seeking "unanimous consent" of the voting members.

From a strict parliamentary procedure "legal" perspective, these actions and others could be regarded by some as reprehensible.  From a vigilant communication perspective, on the other hand, in many cases such simplifications of parliamentary usage can facilitate communication in groups as they go about their business.  One might argue that such applications of parliamentary law are consistent with ROBERT'S RULES, which notes:

Fundamentally, under the rules of parliamentary law, a deliberative body is a free agent -- free to do what it wants to do with the greatest measure of protection to itself and of consideration for the rights of its members (Robert, 1990, p. xliiv).

Our research clearly indicates that community groups invoke the principles articulated by Robert and use of parliamentary procedure only as it is seems essential to do so, and communication does not appear to generally be affected by this selective use of the rules.

The examples cited here are only a small sample of violations of parliamentary procedure protocol observed by researchers.  For instance, this particular planning group was the only one of the eight community planning groups mandated to use parliamentary procedure that had appointed a designated parliamentarian; thus, the other groups were dependent on someone, usually the chair, to assure adherence to correct legal procedures.

However, there are some matters of parliamentary procedure that carry important ramifications from a communication perspective.  For example, some of the planning groups fail to adopt the minutes of the previous meeting.  Thus, if members later discuss a policy that was purportedly adopted, there can be significant disagreements about the issues because the minutes are not an accurate record of the membership's understanding of the action taken.  For instance, at the meeting discussed here, a number of members made comments such as "I thought we had passed [some version of a motion]. . . ."  In stark contrast was one member who read verbatim from the minutes of the previous meeting in order to argue his position, and there was no disagreement from other members.  Without an accurate record of the previous proceedings, this argument would not be possible.  Thus the careful adoption of minutes facilitated communication.  Failure to precisely record a motion can inhibit effective communication by prohibiting "rational" argument and thus effective decision making that requires a good understanding of alternative courses of action.

Perhaps the most flagrant violation of parliamentary procedure was observed by one of the authors while attending a meeting of one of the community planning committees.  An elected recording secretary introduced several motions that were very crudely phrased.  At one point, he observed that one of these would "look better in the minutes."  The chair then failed to state the motion, as required by ROBERT'S RULES.  Thus, members of the assembly were confronted, apparently without due concern on their part, with addressing an ambiguously phrased motion that may or may not have been consistent with their understanding of the proposed action. Further, there is no accurate record of action taken that could be employed in future deliberations.

In sum, this phase of the research found virtually no evidence of the use of parliamentary procedure by members or the chair of the community group to further their ulterior motives.  Instead, we observed people simply articulating their opinion and verbally fostering "groupness."  There was evidence of frequent violations of parliamentary procedure technical matters, however.  On the other hand, correct parliamentary procedure was invoked by the group to facilitate its communication.

Discussion and Conclusions

It is surprising to discover that parliamentary procedure is so little understood by members of business organizations and other community groups even though many claim to have adopted it as a mode of decision making. Even in groups that are mandated to use it, procedures are seldom invoked in a way that verifies a technically "rational" and sophisticated model. Observations clearly indicate, as might be expected, that there is extremely wide variation in the correct use of parliamentary procedure in community groups.  However, a person who has completed a single college-level class in parliamentary procedure generally has little difficulty in identifying errors in the use of parliamentary procedure as generally practiced.  These errors range from basics, such as correctly introducing and seconding a motion, to the chair's handling of motions and voting violations.  Members of the community groups seldom are sophisticated enough to correctly use technically oriented procedures such as privileged, subsidiary, or incidental motions.

On the other hand, the case study here suggests that effective group communication is not necessarily prohibited by the lack of parliamentary technical adeptness.  Members fostered decision rationality, and in this case, a somewhat adept chair seemed to facilitate the decision making. Further, the case study suggests that vigilant interaction is at work here.  As noted in the group's deliberations, decision rationality and action rationality came into play.  In addition vigilant interaction is observable
in more explicit terms of assessment of the task, assessment of evaluative criteria, assessment of positive qualities, and assessment of negative qualities.  The group seemed to clearly understand their task at the meeting and the difficulties in accomplishing it.  In brief, they knew full well that an important criteria for their action was the legality of the matter, and they weighed, as positive and negative qualities, local precedent and state law, their previous actions, and Robert's Rules as guiding forces.

Apparently, the use of technical parliamentary motions is not often essential to facilitate effective communication, and group satisfaction. Interviews during the second phase of the research project revealed that it is common for members to observe, "We use a modified form of parliamentary procedure."  Some demur at the opportunity to refer to themselves as "competent," but almost all seem satisfied with a modified application of procedures.  Members of community groups seem concerned with simply accomplishing their business, without concern for complete, correct adherence to the legal prescriptions of parliamentary procedure.  Further, there is virtually no evidence that procedures are conducted in a way that violates the fundamental rights of the members.  The procedures, as practiced, seem to allow members to voice their opinions.  There are
virtually no reports of members using their knowledge of parliamentary procedure as a power-enabling tool to accomplish ulterior motives to the exclusion of the rights of other members.

Nonetheless, some who are familiar with correct parliamentary procedure would be appalled by the practices of the groups observed.  These critics include people who adopt only the legal perspective on parliamentary procedure, not the communication perspective, and from that perspective
their concerns are warranted.  It appears that few groups have a designated parliamentarian who is an "expert," minutes are sometimes recorded and approved/corrected in a "slipshod" fashion, and motions are processed in a "sloppy" way.  Deliberately or unwittingly, chairs and other would-be leaders seem to command immense, potential power -- apparently seldom utilized -- in the assemblies as a result of what appears to be minimal knowledge by most members of parliamentary procedure. Parliamentary-competent persons generally seem very empathetic with those who lack sophisticated knowledge, and the "competent" persons often seem anxious to facilitate the agenda of the "incompetent" persons.

In short, observations indicate that parliamentary procedure, as practiced, fulfills its goal of providing an orderly, systematic means of decision making with seeming protection of the interests of members. Knowledge is power, and those who understand parliamentary procedure could probably run "roughshod" over others.  However there are virtually no reports of persons choosing to do so.  Parliamentary procedure is generally invoked only when it seems necessary as a means of achieving the group's goals and wishes, facilitating more time-efficient discussion, and in the process some procedures are correctly followed.  Thus, the "philosophy" articulated in previous communication literature seems judiciously employed.  Parliamentary procedure involves the use of good judgment in lieu of mechanical rules, and it should be used for carrying out the will of the group.  It would appear that this should be the prevailing view when teaching parliamentary procedure within communication departments.

Parliamentary procedure has been largely regarded simply as a set of rules rather than as an important communication factor in group decision making. This study has revealed that it is widely practiced in a limited form in the local community, but a formally "rational," systematic, sophisticated model of its technical usage does not prevail.  Additional research can provide further insight into the communication process by testing hypotheses suggested by recent literature.  For example, such research might focus on the extent to which parliamentary procedure determines the decision rules of argument and, indirectly, the strategies employed and the extent to which it resolves conflicts in groups through avoidance, conquest, reconciliation, compromise, and award.  Ultimately it may be
possible to identify the most important and most frequently occurring features of parliamentary procedure that influence decision making.  For example, does the size of the group influence the extent and ways in which parliamentary procedure is used?  The authors were members of a department of 11 faculty that used parliamentary procedure often and very adequately, albeit not expertly, to seemingly very productive ends.  However, our department merged with others into a larger group of almost 30 faculty, and the prevailing norm seems to be more of a disdain for the use of parliamentary procedure.  We can only conjecture about the basis for this view, and only further empirical research will lead to generalizable understanding of parliamentary procedure's function.