Roberts Rules: Protecting minority opinion, minimizing chaos

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As noted in Participedia,

Robert’s Rules operates under the idea of majority rule while still acknowledging and respecting minority opinion. The system of debate allows for this by ensuring equal speaking opportunities from all sides.

From Roberts Rules:

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 [RONR (11th ed.), Introduction, p. liii]

There are three pragmatic principles at work here. First, debate is limited. Since different individuals will have different levels of access to a body, such as control of a newsletter or speaking opportunities, it is important to have the debate about a specific question constrained and confined to a well defined session following agreed up on rules. This is a problem when on line or email based discussions are happening, because those rules are hard to apply or comprehend, let alone enforce.

Second, there is the idea of majority rule. This seems obvious, but in fact, many decisions are made by subsets of individuals with more power than others, or subsets of individuals with access to the decision making machinery. It is not reasonable to assume, however, that majority rule is best (see below) in all cases.

Third, the voices of the minority, which are often not defined at the beginning of a debate, are protected. If a majority emerges early in consideration of an issue, and the minority lacks this protection, the majority is likely to prevail before deliberation is complete. It is not uncommon for minority opinion to prevail after after a fair discussion.

Majority opinion is not always the best when an issue for debate comes before a body that has been carefully considered by a trusted and representative subset of the body. It is not uncommon for the larger body to reify, or replicate the work done by the smaller group, but with less expertise and less time, and thus reject the opinions or recommendations of the subgroup, where those recommendations were actually superior to the larger group’s opinion. For this reason, I recommend that subcommittees or study groups avoid presenting the larger group with unordered options unless full deliberation and debate is expected. Within the context of rules of order, a strong and trusted chair might call for some sort of consensus vote on an issue and hear the “Yeahs” and “Nays” rather than allow extensive discussion, but that power can be abused and therefore, there are rules that would easily stop it from happening, thus giving lie to the “strong and trusted” assumption.

Note, however, that in order for rules of order to function, they have to be followed from beginning to end of a process, for obvious reasons.

So, for rules of order to work, the following is recommended:

1) Pick Robert’s Rules from among the various available rule sets that exist, because they are the most widely known.

2) Read the book. If nobody knows the rules, using them isn’t going to work.

3) Make every part of the process operate under the rules. This means using the rules as the default, and it means making sure that important steps (like voting, handling motions, etc) are clearly defined with respect to procedure.

4) Follow the rules carefully and strictly. For example, after a motion is made, always make sure there is opportunity for supporting and opposing views, and always follow the rules adopted as to how many speakers, and how much time. When a person is done with their statements, they may be tempted to jump in later to clarify after a different person has spoken. This is normally not allowed. When this is happening regularly in a meeting, the rules are not being followed, and the protection of minority opinion has probably been thrown out the window.

5) Follow through with the rules. Apply the rules (to develop procedure) before things are done, follow the rules while doing the things, but then keep following the rules after the thing is done. In other words, a meeting must be adjourned properly before casual conversation about an issue handled during the meeting starts. A change in what was voted on during the meeting can’t happen on the way out the door.

Suggested* resources:

Robert’s Rules For Dummies (Yes, it is quite useful, even if you are smart.)

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

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