Procedures for Meetings
Most groups use some form of parliamentary procedure for their meetings. This Factsheet not only briefly explains proper parliamentary procedure for more formal meetings, but also describes acceptable alternatives for decision-making in smaller groups.
Just as the object of a game gives direction to its players, traditional principles of a democratic meeting guide group members when they gather:
In order to play a particular game, certain rules for that game must be followed. "Parliamentary procedure" is a set of rules for meetings which ensures that the traditional principles of equality, harmony and efficiency are kept. Robert's Rules of Order, the best-known description of standard parliamentary procedure, is used by many different organizations as their rule book for conducting effective meetings.
The saying "Rules are meant to be broken ..." implies that no rules are perfect. The parliamentary rules used in government provide guidance for a body of hundreds of people meeting daily for months with a great volume of business to conduct.
These same rules are not appropriate for all organizations. How rigid are your meetings? Does too much technical procedure (motions, amendments, seconding, etc.) get in the way of effective decision-making and total group discussion? Too much formality in a meeting will frustrate and discourage members when the proceedings "bog down". Parliamentary rules for meetings are intended to help the group conduct its business (fairly and efficiently), not hinder it!
There are many effective ways for a group to conduct its meetings. Technical procedure, however, should be discouraged in the average group meeting.
Every organization should examine standard parliamentary rules, then interpret and adapt them to its own use. If group members agree that the rules they've developed permit a majority to accomplish the organization's ultimate purpose within a reasonable period of time, while allowing the minority a reasonable opportunity to express its views, then those rules are appropriate.
Meeting procedures for committees, executives and most boards can be much different than those for larger gatherings. Certain formalities are unnecessary when the group size is less than about a dozen members. For example:
If, however, a small group using these "relaxed" rules discovers that any one of the four basic meeting principles is being abused, then more formal procedures may be reintroduced to the meeting.
If your group follows parliamentary procedure "by the book", the occasional technical question might be asked.
1. What is the proper sequence of steps in having a motion voted on?
A motion has nine possible steps:
2. Can the intent of the main motion be changed by an amendment?
Yes; the main motion may be changed, contrary to the intent of its
3. How many amendments can be made to a motion?
There are only two kinds of amendments: those pertaining to the proposed motion called "first rank"; and those pertaining to a proposed amendment called "second rank" (amendment to the amendment). Only one amendment of each rank may be on the floor at one time. Any number of amendments may be made to most motions, but no "second rank" amendments may be amended (i.e., an amendment to the amendment to the amendment is not allowed!).
4. How can a meeting start without a quorum?
A quorum is the minimum number of eligible voters that must be present at a meeting to conduct business. This number is designated in the by-laws of the organization and for a board is usually half the voting members plus one. If no quorum is present when the advertised hour of the meeting has been reached, then:
5. How can our constitution be amended?
A good constitution contains provisions for amendment, so the structure and procedures can continually meet the changing needs and purposes of the group.
Usually, a special committee is appointed to review the group's objectives, structure, functions, etc. Copies of its report and recommendations are circulated to all members with the required notice and agenda for the meeting (often the organization's annual meeting). Any amendments proposed during discussion at the meeting require a majority vote for approval, but the motion to amend the constitution needs a two-thirds majority vote for adoption.
6. Who is the presiding officer at meetings?
Often the president is designated in the constitution or by-laws to chair the organization's meetings. In many groups, however, the chair is assigned to the past-president, special moderator, or to a different person each time on a rotating basis. This allows the president to take a lead in debates on policy rather than maintain a position of "supposed" neutrality which is directly contrary to his or her usual role as spokesperson for the group.
7. After considerable debate, we still are not ready to vote on the motion. What can we do?
8. What happens when someone yells "Question!" from the floor?
Someone yelling "Question!" from the floor indicates that he or she wants the motion put to a vote. Only if the chair feels that the motion has had reasonable debate and most members are ready to vote, can he or she call the question (i.e., "All those in favour?", etc.).
Another way to close discussion on a motion is for someone to make a motion to call for a vote. This motion must be seconded and requires a two-thirds majority vote in order to proceed with a vote on the motion on the floor.
9. How should a committee report be accepted by an organization?
A motion to "receive" the report means that the organization is not committed to any of the conclusions or recommendations contained in it. (An example of such a report would be the monthly, unaudited treasurer's report.)
A motion to "adopt" the report in whole or in part commits the organization to some or all of the recommendations of the report, and often implies some action to be taken.
10 Sometimes while one motion is being considered, an alternative motion might be the better one. How can it be presented?
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How many meetings does your group hold in a year to discuss issues or problems? How much time is spent in each regular meeting making decisions or solving problems? Does the discussion end with a proposal for action?
One rule in parliamentary procedure that can hamper a free and easy exchange of ideas is: "Discussion can take place only after a motion is proposed". In fact, a motion is a proposed course of action, a solution to a problem, or a decision. By focusing the group's attention on a solution before realizing the scope of the problem, the group may be voting on something that is entirely inappropriate. Is the "cart before the horse"?
A simple method of ensuring an effective group decision is to build a motion through consensus. This method eliminates a complicated amendment procedure after an initial motion has been proposed. It also ensures that a large majority will agree with the motion rather than the mere 51% required by a typical voting procedure.
The following process can be used throughout the meeting for every problem the group needs to discuss.
Step 1. Describe the issue or problem confronting the group.
- State the problem clearly and concisely. If it is complex, then write it out.
Step 2. Gather all information relevant to the problem.
- All pertinent facts and ideas about the problem need to be heard
in order to make a wise decision.
A decision can often be made right away. However, action may need to be deferred so that additional information can be gathered.
Step 3. List all possible solutions or actions.
- Explore alternatives.
Choose the best possible solution.
Step 5. Make a decision.
- Formulate a statement of general agreement or consensus;
A group using formal parliamentary procedure can easily use the consensus method of decision-making. A motion should be made from the floor to move to an "informal session". The entire group then carries on a free discussion until the matter has been thoroughly discussed, with few formalities, using the consensus steps 1-5. A motion to "rise" from this informal session returns the group to its formal proceedings.
Reaching consensus is not always easy. Some individuals become frustrated with the time taken for group decision-making. Also, this method relies on the discretion of the chair who eventually decides when a general agreement or common "feeling" has been reached. In some situations, if only extremely vocal and confident individuals dare to challenge the majority view, then the minority opinion is in danger of being suppressed.
Using consensus, however, can result in higher quality decisions. The complicated rules of parliamentary procedure are reduced while maximum member participation is encouraged. In the end, group decisions lead to group action!
Whichever method your group chooses to make its decisions or conduct its meetings, the four principles of a democratic meeting must be followed.
As more formal procedures are adopted, more complicated rules are followed. There is little reason for any one person to attempt to learn every rule of parliamentary procedure. To know where to find the answers is enough. The following references may help answer any questions not addressed in this Factsheet.
Parliamentary Procedure at a Glance. Jones, O. Garfield. Appleton-Century-Crafts, Inc., 1932.
Procedures for Meetings and Organizations. Kerr, M. Kaye and Hubert W. King. Carswell Legal Publications, 1984.
Robert's Rules of Order. Robert, Henry M. Tutor Press, 1978
Relevant OMAF Factsheets
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