We love rules. And we hate rules. It’s part of who we are as humans—that we both buck against guidelines but also, deep inside, have an appreciation for structure and procedural standards. And nowhere is this more apparent than when we get together for an official meeting.
Welcome to parliamentary procedure.
Parliamentary procedure is the name for the set of rules that govern the work of a group as it meets together to conduct business. And the basic purpose? To help make sure things are done with order and efficiency.
A Tiny History Lesson
We can thank the British parliament of the 1600s for figuring out some basic rules for public assemblies—who should speak, what they should speak about, and how often they should speak. Thomas Jefferson and an American jurist, Luther Cushing, both brought these and other ideas into United States culture in the 1800s.
Early on, parliamentary procedure was the stuff of government. Congress began to follow rules as they met to present ideas, draft policy, and vote on laws.
Then, Henry Martyn Robert came along—the man credited with creating the most common, well-known rulebook for deliberative assemblies—Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised—now in its 12th edition and referenced or used by both legislative and non-legislative groups everywhere.
You + Your Group
So, how does the field of parliamentary procedure intersect with your life in 21st-century America?
If you’re part of any organization—for-profit or non-profit—and attend business or board meetings, you’ve probably observed some sort of parliamentary procedure in action. All kinds of groups use parliamentary procedure principles and rules to provide order and structure for the actions and processes of their organization.
Parliamentary procedure can be applied to the work of non-profit associations, legislative bodies, political parties, trade associations, unions, religious groups and churches, government agencies, homeowner associations, and more. If you meet as an official group—even a small board—this is the body of information that is commonly used to standardize how you conduct your business.
The rules of parliamentary procedure fall into several categories:
- Bylaws and governing documents
- Membership, officers, and elections
- Meeting frequency and parameters
- Speaking limits for debate
The exact set of rules in these areas can differ according to the parliamentary authority (rulebook) selected by your group. But most organizations choose a published set of rules as their guide—they don’t start from scratch and write their own.
As mentioned, Robert’s Rules of Order has historically been a very common and reputable parliamentary authority for nearly 150 years. Another popular option is the AIP Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. Choosing a published rulebook, which has been accepted and used with regularity by groups nationwide, is a wise step for any group seeking to do its work well.
And, a bonus tip: Hire a professional parliamentarian to help you navigate the complexities of understanding your chosen rulebook (hint: it’s not easy bedtime reading!) and the applications of parliamentary procedure to your specific group’s needs.
Why Should I Care?
If you’re officially a member of an organization, then I’m guessing you care about your rights. Well, so does parliamentary procedure. Robert’s Rules and the Standard Code are both based on principles which protect the group as a whole as well as the individual members:
- The rights and decision of the majority
- The rights of the minority
- Equal rights for each member—to be informed, to vote, to speak
Also, if you don’t like your time wasted, welcome to the club. Parliamentary procedure is your friend. It’s a field focused on accomplishing work with order and efficiency—standardizing how things happen so that no one is getting creative or reinventing the wheel for each meeting.