Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

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Meeting Rules: Instead of Complaining, Propose Something Workable

I'm going to surprise some people here with my opening statement: Robert's Rules of Order is too complicated.

I got complained at on Twitter a couple of days ago about how the rules for the WSFS Business Meeting are too complicated and shouldn't require outreach like the Business Meeting Basics video. When I asked what would be an improvement, the best I could get out of the complainer is something about "doing it all online." Not that Twitter is a good place for explaining complex issues, but from her point of view, it sounded to me like anything more complicated than a Twitter post was "too complicated."

Well, I'm sorry, but "simple" and "democratic" tend to be contradictory goals. There are very simple solutions like "Do everything I personally say without question," but they aren't particularly democratic. There are hyper-democratic solutions like "anyone who wants to speak gets unlimited discussion and unlimited times at debate, and nothing can be done without unanimous consent," but these aren't particularly practical. (The current form of the US government is the outgrowth of a realization that requiring unanimous consent of the states for anything important was impractical.)

The reason that parliamentary procedure is complex is that it's trying to balance a bunch of contradictory rights. If you're someone who is convinced that your personal, individual right to speak for as long as you want and as many times as you want trumps the rights of the group to be able to finish the discussion and reach a decision in a reasonable time, well, it's unlikely that you'll ever be happy with any rules that allow for limits on debate. If you're someone who has no patience with debate and just wants the Strong Man to Make Decisions, you'll never be pleased with rules that allow for people to debate and reach a group decision through voting.

Despite my respect for parliamentary procedure and the rule of law as it applies to deliberative assemblies (groups of people gathering to debate and decide upon things), I am not 100% enamored of the most common American parliamentary rules manual, Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised. (Hereafter RONR.) That has not stopped me from becoming something of an expert in it, because it is effectively the technical manual of parliamentary democratic procedure in most of the USA and many other places.

RONR is big and complicated because it's been accumulating more and more material over time, and it tries to cover every possibility. This leads to bloat. In addition, RONR contains a number of moderately archaic terms and practices that trace back to at least the founding of the USA and probably earlier. For example, the technical name of the procedural motion "to end the debate and bring the matter to a vote now," is called, for reasons unclear to me, "Previous Question." (Because I know this isn't obvious to anyone but a parliamentarian, I consider "Call the Question," "End the Debate," "Vote now," and any obviously similar request to be identical to "Previous Question," and treat it accordingly.)

So if I dislike RONR that much, why am I such a champion for it? Because I tried once to introduce a simpler manual, and the members rejected it. Specifically, the book currently known as the Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. (Hereafter TSC.) This book, previously known as Sturgis' Code, is a simplified form of American parliamentary procedure. In my opinion, it's actually closer to what the members of WSFS and Westercon want, with one big exception: Objection to Consideration. A fair chunk of the Worldcon Business Meeting Standing Rules modifies RONR to be closer to TSC.

Some years ago (during the Spokane Westercon, as it happens), I pushed hard to get TSC adopted as the parliamentary manual for Westercon business meetings. The rules on amending the Westercon bylaws were easier then, and I managed to get my way, by a single vote. But the following year, I wasn't able to attend the Westercon in Hawaii, and the Meeting changed things back to RONR. I usually know when I'm defeated, and there are limits to how many times I'm prepared to invest effort in a losing cause. The people who show up and vote voted to stick with the older, more complicated rules, probably because they already know how they work, and they feared any change that might require them to learn anything new, even if it was easier. I understand that. Westercon and WSFS Business Meetings tend to be fundamentally conservative in the sense of "reluctant to change," not in the US political philosophy sense.

So change comes slowly and incrementally. Abuse of Objection to Consideration, and the unseemly behavior of people deploying it against every single proposal, led to the WSFS Business Meeting agreeing to make OTC a higher hurdle (3/4 vote instead of 2/3) and allowing the use of Postpone Indefinitely (previously banned under WSFS rules) as a motion with limited debate, allowing for a short debate about why something is worth discussing, but allowing 2/3 of the members to kill the proposal after that short debate.

WSFS rules are complicated because the people who attend the meetings have effectively voted for complexity, but also because some of the complexity is required to protect the rights of members, both individually and in groups, and including the members who aren't even at the meeting. If you have a better way for deciding how we should run things, the onus is on you to propose something. As long as you just complain that "it's too complicated," without proposing something both easier and workable, don't expect to be taken seriously.
Tags: business meeting, parliamentary procedure, westercon, worldcon, wsfs, wsfs business meeting

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