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Michael responds to typical questions about parliamentary procedure, rules of order, what parliamentarians do, why organizations should adopt a parliamentary authority (such as Robert's Rules of Order), and procedural issues that can affect the success of a meeting.
There are basically three different kinds of parliamentarians. The first group consists of representatives who are typically elected (or appointed) to a political or legislative body. In Canada, the term is often applied to Members of Parliament and Senators federally, as well as to members of provincial legislatures. In the United States, members of Congress and state legislatures are also technically parliamentarians, in this sense.
The second group of parliamentarians consists of members of the ancient Order of Strigiformes, of particular interest to ornithologists.
And finally, the third kind of parliamentarian is someone who is appointed by an organization to provide advice and assistance on parliamentary procedure and rules of order. Robert's Rules of Order defines a parliamentarian as "a consultant, commonly a professional, who advises the president and other officers, committees and members on matters of parliamentary procedure".
As a Registered Parliamentarian, I fall into this third category.
Pictured is 'Owl on a Magnolia Branch' (Kubota Shunman, ca 1890-1900, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
Parliamentarians of the 'third kind' (see Q1) can perform a variety of functions, depending on the needs of each organization. Most commonly, a parliamentarian will attend meetings, including conventions and annual general meetings (or AGMs), and will sit close to the chair or presiding officer to provide advice and assistance during the meeting, if required. The same basic process can be followed in virtual meetings.
Beyond attending specific meetings, however, a parliamentarian can act as a consultant, providing advice on procedural matters in advance of a meeting, including the preparation of agendas, and the drafting of motions, resolutions, and committee or board reports. Some organizations ask their parliamentarians to write scripts that can be used as guidance for presiding officers and committee chairs during a meeting.
Parliamentarians help clients draft constitutions and bylaws, bylaw amendments, and committee terms of reference, and can prepare a formal parliamentary opinion to help in interpreting an unclear or disputed bylaw provision. Most parliamentarians will also offer training workshops (e.g., on rules of order, presiding techniques or drafting minutes and reports), and may also be asked to provide independent supervision of elections.
Organizations seeking a parliamentarian solely to assist at a convention are strongly advised to involve the parliamentarian in at least some of the planning of the agenda beforehand, as early as possible. As Robert's Rules of Order notes, 'the parliamentarian's most important work may well be performed before the convention opens', essentially mitigating problems before they happen.
Parliamentarians are also asked to chair meetings (occasionally, even just a portion of a meeting), when an organization requires a neutral, independent and professional presiding officer. This is recommended in cases where the topic may be particularly contentious, or where a member-chair may be in a conflict of interest, or where the regular presiding officer wants to provide leadership from the floor during debate on an important matter. When a parliamentarian is presiding, he or she is not functioning in the role of a parliamentarian, although it is the knowledge, skills and experience of a professional parliamentarian that make for a good chair.
For further background, take 20 minutes to listen to this interesting 2017 episode from the 'Every Little Thing' podcast. The episode is entitled 'The Senate Whisperer', and although it begins with an examination of the role of the Parliamentarian in the United States Senate, it broadens out to feature interviews with a number of professional parliamentarians about their work with non-governmental associations.
We absolutely do need rules of order! Let's start with why we have meetings in the first place. When members join an organization, they all have individual opinions, but an organization needs to be able to make collective decisions, and those decisions are typically made in meetings. Rules of order regulate the conduct of business in meetings with a commonly understood and accepted process, helping individual members to reach a group decision.
Rules of order provide a formal opportunity for the group to focus on proposals (one motion at a time) in a forum where members (one speaker at a time) can participate to: defend the proposal, disagree, criticize, suggest improvements, try to change minds, and ultimately, make a decision by vote. The rules impose a certain level of formality (the details of which can vary depending on the circumstances), which is necessary because group decision-making requires clarity: everyone needs to know exactly what will be done, by whom, when, and at what cost.
Rules of order, properly observed, lead to more effective, efficient and democratic group decision-making.
Photo: European Union delegates voting in a committee meeting.
There are two international organizations, both headquartered in the United States, that certify professional parliamentarians: the American Institute of Parliamentarians (AIP) and the National Association of Parliamentarians (NAP). Both organizations offer a rigorous examination process leading to one or more credentials, and both require continuing education and professional activity to maintain those credentials.
Although there is no equivalent Canadian-based certification body, affiliated chapters of both organizations operate in Canada, and Canadians are active, and hold elected positions, in both of these associations. Many parliamentarians belong to both bodies.
To practise as a parliamentarian in Canada and the United States, however, does not legally require certification, or even membership in a professional body, so it is important for clients to carefully review the qualifications and experience of someone offering parliamentary advice or services. You can be confident that someone holding a credential from either AIP or NAP has expertise in parliamentary procedure and rules of order.
Credentialed parliamentarians are also expected to comply with the Code of Professional Responsibility for Parliamentarians, jointly adopted by AIP and NAP and updated in 2020. See also my response to Q6, below: 'What is your approach to parliamentary procedure?'
Links to these and other organizations can be found on my Resources page.
The bylaws of many organizations authorize the president or board to appoint a member to act as parliamentarian at meetings. Ideally, this is a member who has some training in parliamentary procedure, and who is respected for their knowledge of the rules.
For most small organizations, this role is quite appropriate for a member to perform, although member-parliamentarians can find it a challenge to maintain a position of impartiality, and to give up the right to move motions, participate in debate, or vote (except in the case of a secret ballot). Unlike the chair of a meeting, a member-parliamentarian cannot temporarily step down from that role to participate in debate and then resume the role afterwards.
Even organizations that use a member-parliamentarian at meetings will often seek out a professional parliamentarian if they need assistance with more complicated issues, such as interpreting or drafting bylaws, writing a formal parliamentary opinion, supervising an election, providing members with training, or advising on unusual situations - roles that are summarized in response to Q2.
Although parliamentarians work with rules of order, experience has taught me that there also needs to be appropriate room for informality and flexibility. The key word is 'appropriate', since the level of formality will depend on the type of meeting, the subject matter under discussion and, to an extent, the expectations of the members.
A large convention typically requires a high level of formality, with little room for flexibility, given the size of the meeting and the limited time to conduct business. Smaller meetings may permit a somewhat less prescriptive approach to enforcing the rules (and, indeed, all of the parliamentary authorities recommend modified rules of order for small boards and committees).
One of the responsibilities of both the chair of a meeting, and the parliamentarian, is to 'read the room' and govern themselves accordingly. It isn't reasonable to be slavish to the rules just for the sake of enforcing them, particularly if decisions can be reached fairly and expeditiously using another acceptable process, such as common sense! Robert's Rules notes that the chair of a meeting 'should never be technical or more strict than is necessary for the good of the meeting' and that 'Good judgement is essential . . . strict enforcement of the rules [might in some cases] greatly hinder business'.
You can read more in this blog post on the importance of good judgement when applying rules of order.
A parliamentarian needs to know the rules, particularly in contentious discussions where competing rights must be carefully balanced. But a good parliamentarian will also recognize that appropriate flexibility and informality can sometimes expedite decision-making, without jeopardizing the rights of members. As a parliamentarian, I look for such opportunities, and will advise the chair and members accordingly.
I am also on call for consultation at any time throughout the year (between conventions and meetings), and clients should always feel free to call, text or email me with questions, proposed strategies and other issues as they arise.
First published in 1876, Robert's Rules of Order has become the standard international authority or manual for organizing and conducting decision-making meetings. It was originally written by General Henry M. Robert, an engineer in the U.S. Army (pictured here), who was frustrated with the 'parliamentary anarchy' he found in attending meetings of voluntary church and civic organizations, which expanded in popularity after the U.S. Civil War.
His goal was to provide 'order out of chaos', so that individuals could spend their time focused on the 'real work of their societies', without having to re-learn or re-invent procedural rules every time they moved to a different city or state, or joined a new organization.
General Robert revised and expanded his original manual through four editions before he died in 1923. His family continued his work, and Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised (abbreviated as RONR) is now in its 12th edition (released in August 2020).
The practice has been to revise the book every decade, giving the authors an opportunity to provide updates and clarifications. Most of the changes between the 11th and 12th editions are more in the nature of useful tweaks than major revisions, although there is a new and expanded section on virtual meetings. (See my blog post on the publication of the 12th edition of Robert's Rules and a subsequent post with a few critical comments and suggested reforms.)
At 714 pages, the current edition of Robert's Rules of Order is the most comprehensive parliamentary authority available, and surveys consistently reveal that it has been adopted by over 90 per cent of organizations that specify a parliamentary authority in their bylaws.
More than just a manual of meeting rules, Robert provides guidance on the full range of parliamentary procedure, including:
The same authorship team has produced an abridged version of Robert's Rules that covers the basics: Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised in Brief. At just over 200 pages, it offers an excellent introduction to the motions and essential elements of Robert in an easy-to-read format. For most members of an organization, In Brief may well be the only book they need to buy.
Yes, and also see Q9, which deals specifically with manuals by Canadian authors. The answer to this question also reflects a difference in approach between the two international parliamentary associations referred to in Q4.
The National Association of Parliamentarians (NAP) focuses exclusively on Robert's Rules of Order (and professional parliamentarians from NAP sit on the Robert's Rules authorship team), whereas the American Institute of Parliamentarians (AIP) supplements the study of Robert with others, primarily the AIP Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure.
The Standard Code was originally written by Alice Sturgis, who taught courses at the University of California and Stanford University. Her book was known as the Sturgis Standard Code when it was first published in 1950. It was intended as a more concise, simpler, and perhaps more user-friendly, guide to parliamentary procedure than Robert, and the publication of the Code essentially forced the authors of Robert's Rules to substantially revise their manual, making it more self-explanatory. After Professor Sturgis died in 1974, her family negotiated with the AIP to take over responsibility for updating her book, and the current 2nd edition of 428 pages was released in September 2023.
The AIP also encourages the study of Cannon's Concise Guide to Rules of Order (2001) by Hugh Cannon, a former parliamentarian to the U.S. Democratic Party. At 169 pages, it simplifies Robert's Rules of Order and contains a useful and extensive section on the role of the chair and the importance of good presiding.
It is important to note that any competent and properly trained professional parliamentarian who knows the fundamentals of parliamentary law as embodied in Robert or the Standard Code should be able to adapt quickly to any other parliamentary authority and provide appropriate advice to a client.
There are a few additional resources that might be helpful to mention. For lay readers, these three very good, plain-language introductory summaries have been prepared by professional parliamentarians - an asterisk (*) indicates that the book has been updated to reflect changes in the latest (12th) edition of Robert's Rules of Order (but the others are included because they still contain quite useful information and advice):
For those interested in diving a bit deeper to learn more about parliamentary procedure, particularly why certain procedures or motions are used, the following three books are recommended:
Yes, indeed. The best and most useful Canadian-authored text is by Toronto-based parliamentarian James Lochrie (pictured), entitled Meeting Procedures: Parliamentary Law and Rules of Order for the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham Md, 2003; available from amazon.ca and indigo.ca.) At 216 pages, it is a modern, simplified and jargon-free codification of parliamentary procedure that has now been adopted by a number of municipal councils as their parliamentary authority.
Although the author is Canadian, the book is applicable to the meetings of any organization, regardless of the country in which they are held. Jim Lochrie is a former President of the American Institute of Parliamentarians and has acted as parliamentarian to clients in both the United States and Canada. He was also a co-author of the first edition of the AIP Standard Code.
The first Canadian parliamentary authority intended for a general readership was published in 1894 by Sir John George Bourinot, Clerk of the Canadian House of Commons from 1880 until his death in 1902. The manual continued to be updated after his death, and is now published as Bourinot's Rules of Order, with the most recent (fourth) edition by Geoffrey Stanford issued in 1995. The 109-page book contains what are now quite dated sections on the rules of the House of Commons and corporate meetings, as well as information intended for not-for-profit groups.
Bourinot's Rules were adopted by a number of Canadian organizations, motivated perhaps by a sense of nationalism at a time (well before the publication of Lochrie's book) when there were few other available options. The major problem with Bourinot's Rules, however, is that they are not comprehensive enough to meet the needs of most organizations. As Western University Professor Margaret Banks, who wrote the Bourinot entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, has noted: "Robert’s [Rules of Order] is a complete rule book, suitable for organizations which do not wish to write rules of order; Bourinot’s deals mainly with general principles and is more useful for organizations which have adopted their own rules of order and rely on it only in unprovided cases".
More information on the problems with Bourinot's Rules can be found in this blog post, including the revelation that Bourinot himself, in the first edition of his book, actually recommended that Canadian non-governmental organizations adopt Robert's Rules as their parliamentary authority.
Vancouver-based parliamentarian Eli Mina has written Mina's Guide to Minute Taking: Principles, Standards and Practical Tools (2004, 93 pages), a useful manual for those responsible for recording meeting decisions. Tom Urbaniak, a professor at Cape Breton University, wrote Action, Accommodation, Accountability: Rules of Order for Canadian Organizations (2011, 182 pages), described as offering 'modern rules . . . based on Canadian practices and traditions'. Although the book was an earnest effort, it does not appear to have displaced other parliamentary authorities used by Canadian organizations.
There are two other Canadian manuals worth noting: Procedures for Meetings and Organizations by Professors M. Kaye Kerr and Hubert W. King, and Wainberg's Society Meetings by lawyers J.M. Wainberg and Mark I. Wainberg. The first book, which became known simply as Kerr and King, was last updated in 1996. Wainberg was originally published in 1992, and a second edition with no significant changes was released in 2001. Copies of Kerr and King and Wainberg are now hard to find, and while there may be a few organizations who still use them, I would describe these authorities as historical curiosities, prescribing fussy, overly-complicated motions and procedures that were not considered best practices even at the time they were written.
J.M. Wainberg had more success with his other publication, Wainberg's Company Meetings, targetting business corporations and shareholder meetings. Now published as Nathan's and Goldfarb's Company Meetings by Hartley R. Nathan (Wainberg's former co-author) and Clifford S. Goldfarb, the most recent (12th) edition was issued in 2020, and at $230 per copy, definitely serves a niche market.
This raises the question, however, of what exactly constitutes a 'Canadian' parliamentary authority. Both Henry Robert, an American civil war-era general, and John Bourinot, a post-Confederation Clerk of the Canadian House of Commons, wrote manuals that were based almost entirely on the body of parliamentary law and rules of procedure developed over centuries in the British Parliament. While these have evolved over time (with obvious differences between the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament), the core elements of parliamentary law remain unchanged and form the basis of the rules of order in all parliamentary texts today.
Organizations seeking to adopt a parliamentary authority should really focus on an assessment of which one works best for their members and meets their needs, rather than on the nationality of the authors.
Parliamentary procedure originally arose from the rules and customs for conducting business in the English Parliament (and subsequently in the British Parliament after 1707), and was developed through a continuing process of decisions and precedents somewhat like the growth of the common law.
These rules and customs migrated to North America during colonization, and became the foundation for legislative bodies in Canada and the United States. This body of 'parliamentary law', as it is used in parliaments and legislatures, has evolved into 'general' or 'common' parliamentary law, which is applicable to a variety of non-governmental organizations, associations, societies, unions, and clubs.
Although the terms 'parliamentary procedure' and 'rules of order' are often used interchangeably, they actually have slightly different meanings. Basically, rules of order apply to meetings of an organization, and codify how business is to be conducted at a meeting and the role of officers in those meetings. Parliamentary procedure, on the other hand, is a broader concept that includes rules of order, but extends to other procedural and governance rules beyond meetings, including the role and responsibilities of officers outside a meeting (typically codified in the bylaws).
The most effective way for an ordinary society or organization to provide itself with both rules of order and a general procedural framework is to formally adopt, as part of its constitution or bylaws, a specific 'parliamentary authority', such as Robert's Rules of Order or the AIP Standard Code or James Lochrie's Meeting Procedures. In adopting such an authority, it becomes binding on the organization except to the extent that members may modify or supplement the authority's rules - either in the bylaws or by approving what are known as 'special rules of order', which then supersede or take priority over the rules in the parliamentary authority with which the bylaws or special rules conflict, or on which the authority is silent.
A more detailed explanation of these and other parliamentary terms can be found in this very helpful online glossary prepared by Illinois parliamentarian Nancy Sylvester (and also included in her book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Robert's Rules). Riddick's Rules of Procedure, by Floyd M. Riddick (former Parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate) and Miriam H. Butcher (a former President of the AIP), is a useful guide to parliamentary procedure organized entirely as an expanded glossary of terms, in alphabetical order.
Pictured is Claude Monet's 1903 painting of 'The Houses of Parliament, Sunset' (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
Yes. The most widely-adopted parliamentary authority among non-governmental organizations in the United Kingdom is The ABC of Chairmanship by Sir Walter Citrine (pictured here).
Originally written in 1939 as a guide for conducting union and political party meetings, it is now the standard rules manual for British social and civic groups across a variety of sectors. The current edition was updated in 1982, and is in its ninth printing, an indication of its durability.
More information about Citrine, his manual, and some earlier British parliamentary authorities can be found in this blog post from April 2020.
No. Most parliamentarians (myself included) are not lawyers, and only lawyers can give you legal advice. By the same token, most lawyers would not claim to have training or expertise in parliamentary procedure or rules of order; if you need advice in these two areas, you should consult a professional parliamentarian.
Very few, if any, organizations were able to meet in person during the pandemic. There are many options for organizing virtual meetings, and a professional parliamentarian can advise on the best ways to proceed.
Aside from a pandemic, however, there are other emergencies that might prevent an organization from meeting in person, so it is always a good idea to review your bylaws to make sure they permit virtual meetings if necessary.
You can read about some of the lessons I've learned from participating in virtual meetings in my March 2021 blog post 'The Pandemic and Virtual Meetings: One Year Later'. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!
Formality can be relaxed somewhat in committees and small boards, but there is a fundamental principle that should apply in all meetings, whether small or large: Don’t get personal during debate!
The purpose of debate is to focus on the merits or substance of a motion, not on the personalities of other members. For this reason, most parliamentary authorities, including Robert’s Rules of Order, recommend avoiding the use of names of other members when discussing issues.
Using impersonal references to other debaters helps elevate the discussion, contributing to a more respectful atmosphere – particularly when supported by two related rules: to refrain from attacking a member’s motives, and to address all remarks through the chair (not directly to another member).
In conventions and large meetings of organizations, members should use officers’ titles (President, Treasurer) or other impersonal references, such as ‘the member who spoke last’, ‘the mover of the motion’, ‘the chair of the committee’, or ‘the delegate from Toronto’. Although less formality may be permitted in smaller meetings, the key point when debating a motion is to rise above the personal and discuss the pros and cons of the proposal.
A recent example from the Canadian House of Commons: In February 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech during debate on the Emergency Act was briefly interrupted by the Deputy Speaker, who was presiding at the time. Mr. Trudeau had said ‘our Health Minister, Mr. Duclos, announced [new border measures]’. Under House of Commons rules, members are expected to refer either to ministerial titles or constituencies, and not use personal names, when referring to other MPs.
The Prime Minister dropped his reference to Mr. Duclos, referring only to the ‘Minister of Health’, and went on to finish his speech. This was a minor and benign breach in the circumstances, but a useful reminder of how rules of order help maintain decorum in meetings, thereby promoting effective decision-making in organizations.
This question arose most recently during a workshop in which a participant complained about a committee chair in her organization who occasionally ‘waives’ Robert's Rules of Order at meetings. I have also encountered this view of a chair's powers in other organizations.
While it is possible to temporarily suspend one or more specific procedural rules during a meeting, such a proposal requires a motion and the support of at least 2/3 of those voting. Not all rules can be suspended, however, including bylaws and the parliamentary authority (e.g., Robert) – even with unanimous consent. And the chair of a meeting has absolutely no unilateral authority to suspend or waive the rules - the chair in this case was clearly out of order!
An organization is able to adopt rules that differ from and override Robert, by amending its bylaws (typically 2/3 vote plus notice) or by adopting special rules of order (2/3 vote with notice or a majority of the entire membership) - in other words, only with significant support from the members..
Whenever a chair or members suggest ignoring Robert, it might mean that they want to get away with something that the rules don’t permit, hoping to take advantage of their fellow members’ inexperience, lack of knowledge, or fear of ‘not getting along’.
In the most benign interpretation, the chair might only want to proceed ‘informally’, but Robert already has provisions for committees and small boards to operate under considerably less formal rules. Even larger groups can move into committee of the whole or adopt less formal rules, but the chair has no special authority to do so – it has to be a decision of the group, and the meeting still has to operate under the basic rules that protect both individual and group rights.
This doesn't mean being slavish to the rules just for form's sake. Good judgement on the part of both the presiding officer and members is always important. But a chair can't just declare that a meeting will be held with no rules, which is what waiving Robert essentially means.
Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash - used with permission.
Yes. It is not uncommon at meetings, especially conventions, to ‘tile’ the doors during voting and balloting. Robert's Rules of Order says (in 45:15 of the 12th edition) ‘In all but small assemblies, the doors should be closed and no one should enter or leave the hall while a count is being taken’. Conventions typically station staff or volunteers at the doors to make sure no one enters or leaves during votes, particularly during elections.
Robert reminds members (in 43:28) to refrain from ‘disturbing’ voting by walking around the room. There’s often enough confusion in the voting process (e.g., inconclusive voice vote or show of hands and/or a close counted vote) without the added disturbance of members coming and going during a vote.
I’ve seen members locked out of meetings year after year because, despite a vote being announced for a specific time, they decided to go to the washroom or to get a coffee or they just didn’t arrive on time. In some cases, their absence affected the outcome of the vote, but once the voting started, they couldn’t enter.
These members are often furious, but the right to vote belongs to those who are present at the time the vote is taken. The solution is just to show up on time and/or stay in the room so you can vote.
Image by Nuthawut Somsuk - used under license.