Unsure about parliamentary procedure? Robert’s Rules of Order offers a complete reference guide for every board procedure, rule, and decision.
The most successful boards often adopt clear ground rules and procedures that allow for smooth and equitable decision making. Parliamentary procedure provides a vital backbone of support for effective board operations, but sometimes can seem daunting. We interviewed Zenda Bowie, an expert on Robert’s Rules of Order, to demystify parliamentary procedure. Bowie served on the Fulton County School Board (GA) for 17 years, including as president, and served as director of field services and parliamentarian for the Georgia School Boards Association. She shares her top tips for helping boards understand and implement parliamentary procedure effectively.
Here are 5 of the most effective ways boards can use Robert’s Rules of Order
1. Use Robert’s Rules of Order as a Complete Reference Guide
Fundamentally, Robert’s Rules of Order ensures that each member of a board has an equal voice in all decisions and that a majority prevails. For each action that a board might consider or take, Robert’s Rules of Order offers a procedural step or rule that can guide all board activities. From how to make a motion, to determining who can speak and when, to settling disagreements and breaking a voting tie, Robert’s Rules of Order has a step or procedure that can be followed, and is an essential component of board best practices.
Robert’s Rules of Order offers a thorough guide for everything from conducting meetings, to writing and changing bylaws, and can be used as the ultimate handbook for board procedure, Bowie said.
2. Set Clear Procedures for Board Discussion
Allowing adequate time for board discussion and setting rules that govern how long board members can speak on a topic, and how often, is critical for passing important board measures and making decisions.
Robert’s Rules of Order can prevent more vocal members from carrying unequal influence during contentious discussions.
If board members are concerned about discussions being sidetracked or are having a difficult time reaching consensus, parliamentary procedure provides all the necessary ground rules, Bowie said. Robert’s Rules of Order helps outline when discussions can be introduced, when they can be tabled, and how many times they can be introduced before a vote must be taken. This prevents any one member, or group of members, from forcing an agenda or vote before the full board feels prepared and ready to pass a motion or full measure.
Board members are allowed to make a motion for a decision on a matter they feel is important, but board members are not obligated to second that motion, Bowie said. Without a second, a motion fails to pass. Basic procedure takes the emotion out of discussion, and it becomes less personal, Bowie added. If a board member feels strongly about an issue, they can make a motion to restart the discussion, but no one has to second that motion. Again, parliamentary procedure prevents any one person from hijacking board decisions and makes for a more effective board, Bowie said.
3. Provide Frequent and Comprehensive Education on Parliamentary Procedure
To be most effective and successful in the use of parliamentary procedure, board members should have a healthy working knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order. Most people are not familiar with the rules and can feel intimidated when they step into a board position and participate in meetings, Bowie said. Too often board members are left to mimic their peers without really understanding how the rules work. Members, and even board chairs, often base procedure on what they may have learned or used on other boards, or with other organizations, and wind up with loose or inadequate board rules and governance. Robert’s Rules of Order offers a clear framework for running effective, efficient, and impactful board operations, Bowie added.
A backbone of the country’s democratic process, Robert’s Rules of Order creates a level playing field for all participants. But, to take full advantage of the organization and efficiency Robert’s Rules of Order delivers, each board member must understand their own role and how the rules govern their contributions and participation.
Learn more about the essential steps for effective school board communication.
4. Discover Lesser-Known Benefits of Robert’s Rules of Order
Want to avoid marathon board meetings? Robert’s Rules of Order can prevent meetings that unnecessarily drag on and on by giving board members specific times to speak and time limits for discussion. The rule framework also prevents a board chair from wielding too much power, making sure that each board member holds equal authority in decision making, said Bowie.
Parliamentary procedure also prevents individual board members from introducing frivolous motions or forcing the entire board to repeatedly reconsider a motion they do not wish to pass.
Robert’s Rules of Order takes care of potential mistakes a board may make, such as conducting business without a quorum of members present. For example, the rules would prompt a board chair to set a time to adjourn and reconvene, so no policy is violated, Bowie added.
Using Robert’s Rules of Order as the understood structure by which the board operates means board leaders and members have a reference for every procedural question that may arise during the course of a meeting or decision. This carries over into the creation or revision of board policies as well, Bowie said. Roberts Rules of Order contains all of the necessary instruction for creating, revising and passing policies that instill the best governance practices for a healthy and effective board.
5. Avoid Common Procedural Mistakes
Confusion and missteps often occur around motions and board discussion, Bowie cautioned. For example, when a member “calls the question,” often the board assumes that all debate must cease and a vote must be taken, but that is not the case, Bowie said. That motion must be seconded and passed.
Another common misconception is the assumption that once a board has voted, an issue is permanently settled. Actually, board members can always move to amend an action, Bowie said.
Virtual board meetings can also incorporate Robert’s Rules of Order. As long as minutes are taken and published, public participation is accommodated and other rules are adhered to, then virtual meetings can just as easily be held using parliamentary procedure.
Read more here about Board Meeting Minutes: 8 Things You Should Never Miss
Roberts Rules of Order offers the procedural glue and direction for every board seeking sound governance. Though the rules are numerous, they offer step-by-step instructions for nearly every board activity and process, making them a must for board chairs and members seeking to make the most of their leadership and participation.
Board members should keep in mind that Robert’s Rules of Order is a foundational tool that supports, but never supersedes board policies, State Board rules, state or federal law. When none of those documents addresses the question at hand, that’s the time to refer to Robert’s.
To take the first step in understanding, or better understanding Robert’s Rules of Order, Bowie recommends bypassing the 600-page rule book and picking up a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised in Brief, a much more digestible read.