Toastmasters: parliamentary procedure

I’m currently two-fifths of the way through a project that I’ve been meaning to do for a while — learn enough parliamentary procedure that I can teach someone else enough that they can use it.

One of the first magical books I ever encountered was John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge. It bounced off my head in a used bookstore while I was browsing the history section; the occult books section was right behind me.   Among the sections of the book was a discussion about how lodge organizations like certain Druidic groups and the Freemasons and others use simplified parliamentary procedures to enact their decision-making and their policies.  It was, the book argued, a basic form of direct democracy.

Magical societies, and fraternal societies generally, get a bad rap these days.  The pseudo-Masonic idea that the coven structure of Wicca goes back thousands of years, or that the the Freemasons were founded some fifteen minutes or so after the creation of Adam and Eve, or that the modern Druids are somehow the historical recreation of an ancient society that goes right back to the Paleolithic Era… well, it’s doubtful, to say the least.

But many of these societies, from my own Toastmasters to the Freemasons to the Lions or the Rotarians, follow some norms of democratic procedure.  It’s one of the few places that most Americans (or most other people in the world, for that matter) encounter the norms of democratic decision-making… and only in groups that have managed to retain these forms of governance instead of a more genial, consensus-driven style.  That consensus-style has been the overthrow of a good many left-leaning organization and movement in the last twenty years, too.

A good many people have noted that the institutions of democracy are under attack over the last few years… maybe that’s because we don’t actually know or understand what those institutions look like?  Maybe it’s the case that if we were better-educated in the procedures of democracy and communicating via rules of order and procedure, we would be less willing to throw them away.

One of those institutions, for better or worse, is the chunky tome shown here, Robert’s Rules of Order, written by Major (later General) Henry T. Roberts and his successors and heirs.  Roberts was frustrated by the lack of mental clarity and indecisiveness he saw at church and social organization meetings, and designed a set of procedures for helping large groups of people think through their methods of self-governance.  Despite the thickness of the book, and the tediousness of the prose, the system works.

The large pamphlet to the right, Parliamentary Procedure In Action, from Toastmasters International (Item 237A from their store), is a guide to an hour-and-a-half-length presentation which can be used toward the achievement of the Advanced Communicator Gold award in TM.  It’s a short-hand guide to the fourteen most-commonly-used motions in parliamentary procedure, especially within organizations (as opposed to true legislative assemblies, which have their own variations of these rules, like the Parliament of India’s Rules, or the Rules of the U.S. Senate.)

I’m currently giving this very presentation, in ten-to-fifteen minute chunks, to one of the Toastmasters clubs to which I belong.

Here’s what I’ve learned.  First, I’ve learned that only lawyers tend to think much along these lines — lawyers and legislators.  Second, I’ve learned that it’s an extraordinarily powerful way of outlining a plan of action for a group.  Third, I’ve learned that people who don’t normally think in terms of parliamentary procedure, or law, are quite-easily stymied or blocked when they come up against the limits of the system.

For example, during one of our practice sessions this past Tuesday, one of the members of my club looked to me to give my own opinion about something, and to contribute to the discussion. But I couldn’t add my $0.02 — because as the chair, or moderator, I was out of the discussion for the time being.  The members of the group were on their own — they had to think through the problem in their own words and thought processes. 

It’s been said that most people would rather die than think, and they do. (I think that was George Bernard Shaw?) This isn’t intended as a criticism of my club’s members. Yet it’s clearer to me now why it is that we don’t understand much of what our legislators and representatives do, or how they do it — or why so many legislators rely on lobbyists and activists to do their work for them.  Thinking through the moving parts of an organization’s decision-making process — WHO does WHAT, by WHEN, with WHOM, with HOW MUCH budget, and WHERE — and how those processes play out over time, can be challenging.  There are so many pieces that interact with one another.

Consider the matter that we looked at through Parliamentary Procedure the other night. Some members of the club want to change the time of our meeting… but there are several competing times on offer.  So these are the possibilities:

  • stay at the same time
  • move a half-hour later
  • move an hour later
  • move an hour and a half later.

The second issue is that some members of our club would like the meeting to be shorter. The choices are:

  • keep the meeting the same length;
  • shorten the meeting to an hour and a half

In order to change the time of the meeting, the club has to do several things:

  • Follow the club constitution’s rules about meeting in person, and quorum
  • Notify the club’s parent organization of the change in time and length of meeting
  • notify the club’s meeting-space provider of the change
  • fill out the requisite paperwork for the club with the space-host

Again, that’s a lot of moving pieces.

The proposed motion was this:

A motion to change the time of the meeting to 7:00 pm.

That leaves a lot of ground uncovered.  Who’s going to see to it that all the busy work gets done?  Who sees to it that all of the steps that need to happen (like paperwork, and insurance filings, and bureaucracy, and publicity), all happen?

The temptation, in a workshop on parliamentary procedure, is to make small changes.  We made changes in our practice meeting, something like this:

A motion to change the time of the meeting to 6:30 pm.

And then

A motion to change the time of the meeting to 6:30 pm; with debate to last not more than ten minutes, and all discussion postponed until [the next meeting].

All of that’s really tentative.

And yet, a year or so ago, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives replaced the entirety of a motion on reimbursing the medical expenses of New York City firefighters who answered the call on 9/11/2001, with the text of a bill to kill the President’s ability to negotiate the TransPacific Partnership treaty (TPP) with only an up-or-down vote.

So what the group really wants is something like this:

The [group name] shall change the time of its regular meeting to 6:00 pm, on [identified weekdays in each month] beginning with the first meeting in February 2018.  The Club President or their designee shall file notice with the [meeting-space provider] and arrange to sign the relevant paperwork.  The Club Secretary shall provide notice to [parent organization] and file all relevant paperwork with them.  The [publicity officer] shall write and send notices to [local news agencies]. The Treasurer shall allocate $[x] for posters and flyers to announce the change in [list of towns], and the [publicity officer] or their designees shall hang them.  The President, Secretary, and [publicity officer] shall report to the club by the second meeting in December 2017 on their progress, and the Treasurer shall reimburse club members up to $[x] on completion of the work and presentation of receipts by the [last] meeting in January 2018.  The President shall report on the process of the time-change at the second meeting in February 2018.

It’s easy to say that this is overkill.

In a small group, it probably is.  But in a group whose members number in the dozens, or in a town whose residents number in the hundreds or tens of thousands, it’s not an unreasonable level of detail.  And, if you’re a person who wants to grow in ability from leading a small community club to being a competent Senator, then thinking through minute (and large) problems at this level of complexity is probably an important skill.

It is, in essence, the skill of learning to make law.  Not simply to make deals to get laws passed, but the skill of thinking through problems and encoding the solutions to those problems in words that people understand, and that enlist designated officers and officials and responsible parties in enacting those solutions.  I’ll admit, that the skill of persuading people to vote for or against procedures is not the same thing as knowing how to use these procedures.  But there is power in these procedures, when they are known and used and followed.

So parliamentary procedure is not magic. Not exactly. And yet, when one knows how to do it well, it almost is.

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