“The application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.”
– Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.), Introduction, p. liii
It is February of 1896. U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert writes down the procedures used in Congress to direct an upcoming church meeting he has been asked to chair. The Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies results.
Ten versions later, Robert’s Rules of Order remains the most widely used guide to meetings in the English-speaking world. Its popularity attests to its effectiveness: It works.
By following Robert’s Rules, school boards can keep discussions on topic, silence interruptions, move the board from discussions to decisions, and create more useful minutes.
Sticking to the Topic
Our time-traveling parliamentarian would first notice (to his horror) that discussions at school board meetings tend to stray off topic – so much so that it’s difficult to recall what “the topic” was supposed to be in the first place. He would have just the tonic that we need: an enforceable rule that only one item at a time is to be addressed.
In the meeting itself, Robert’s procedures support that rule:
- First, everyone has received an agenda. In a paperless meeting, that agenda can appear on a large screen to constitute a shared focal point. The agenda will be structured according to Robert’s Rules, so that each business item appears in the order in which it is to be addressed.
- Second, Robert’s Rules keeps the chairperson in charge of the meeting. With the clear authority to recognize speakers, limit speakers’ time and redirect the discussion, she is constantly steering the meeting to keep it on track.
As a result, the rules make it easy for her to cut off any speech that does not address the business at hand. The stage is set for her to announce:
“We are now on Item 4 on the agenda. There will be an opportunity to address your topic when we get to Item 6.”
“That item is not on the agenda. You can bring it up in the last section of the meeting, designated for new topics.”
On school boards that do not include a section on the agenda for new topics, she would state instead: “That item is not on the agenda. You can use the established protocol to propose that it be addressed at the next meeting.” Robert’s Rules does not specify that protocol. In the digital age, many boards have an online sign-up form. People can access it 24 hours a day, and its high visibility makes plain that requesting time on the agenda follows a uniform process for all. Whatever the medium, a sign-up form offers an opportunity to repeat the time limit for all speakers.
The exact same procedure empowers the chair when one person cuts off another to try to change the topic. Even if the interrupter stays on the same topic, and that topic is the one announced by the agenda, Robert’s Rules makes it easy to nip it in the bud when one person interrupts another: It gives the chairperson the power to grant “the floor” to only one person at a time.
With that power, the chair can simply state matter-of-factly, “Joe Smith (the speaker who was interrupted) has the floor.” She can say it even before the interloper has finished his first sentence. Louder, madder attendees are stripped of their power – which is just as Robert intended it. An objective of his Rules was to confer equal rights on everybody at the meeting, be they in the majority or the minority, tall or short, overpowering or demure.
Henry Robert might be surprised to find that talk and temper notoriously derail school board meetings so that they never get anything accomplished. It’s easy to understand why board members quit and the public loses interest: The board has asked for – and then wasted – their time. Robert’s Rules keeps repeated, heated discussions from going nowhere. It provides the scaffolding to usher each item along to a final vote. According to the rules, every topic under deliberation is expected to proceed through many stages: motion, second, restatement of motion, debating the motion, possible further research or tabling, final debate and vote. Even the most controversial battles reach closure.
Robert’s Rules also keeps voting fair. One of its guiding principles is “one person, one vote.” It also specifies that a quorum must be present for a vote to take place. Finally, it puts the lid on abuses by demanding presence at a meeting as a prerequisite for voting.
When preparing the agenda for the next meeting, the board secretary pays attention to each item’s status in its progression from initial motion to final vote. He will specify on the next agenda that it is to be taken to the next step at the next meeting.
Creating More Useful Minutes
Not only does Robert’s Rules of Order make meetings more decisive in less time, it also makes the minutes more useful as historical documents. Under the rules, minutes cannot be blow-by-blow accounts of heated disputes. Rather, the minutes record only the actions taken on each item.
A year later, a researcher can easily track what decisions have been made. Their task is made even more efficient if the school board stores its minutes on a board portal with an archive that supports meta-searches of all files by keyword.
Robert’s Rules of Order can make school board meetings beacons of efficiency. By applying the simple principles of “one person, one vote,” “one speaker at a time” and “one topic at a time,” the Rules cut through the drama of meetings like a knife through butter. In preparing guidelines to run his church meeting, Henry Robert bequeathed a gift to future generations. With that gift, today’s school boards can turn chaotic meetings into well-oiled machines.