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On Wasted Time

Organizations all over the country operate under Robert’s Rules of Order. The United Nations, the United States Congress, the National Press Club, the Boy Scouts of America (in some settings, that is), the Carmel Needlework Guild, the State legislature in California, and various other groups all make use of them. These compiled rules allow groups holding meeting to make sure that everyone has a voice, and furthermore, to ensure that meetings run in such a way that they are productive. The Student Council at this school, of course, does not. The officers feel, in the words of the minutes, “afraid” of the very idea of structured order for meetings, because the word “Rules” seems overly restrictive.

There is, of course, some justification for such fears. Those unfamiliar with such rules often botch their use, and it is an established fact that those just starting out will suffer from some losses in productivity because they do not understand the system. But, once organizations grow more skilled in their use, a specified set of rules greatly improves both quantity and quality of communication. On the other hand, though, skilled users of rules can take effective control over any committee -- for example, through skilled use of rules, the Republican Party ensured last spring, through a variety of maneuvers, that Clinton’s budget proposal could never pass. The Libyan delegate to the United Nations in 1991 prevented the passage of a UN resolution which would have wholeheartedly condemned the actions of his government entirely through the skilled use of division, postponement, delayed amendment, and recall.

These rules remain conceptually simple. In essence, whenever a delegate to a meeting wants to create an action, he takes several quick steps in order to make is proposal or submission, or whatever, and then has full control over the meeting to the extent specified by that rule. In reality, this is a system of precedent -- each rule should simply be text specifying what are the rights of the organization’s members, and, in order to use that text, the member simply waits for recognition, specifies the area of the text which allows him to make his motion, restates his motion in more generic terms, and then, upon proper authorization, takes the action he has proposed. Certain regulations are further imposed, as part of that text, which limit the time the speaker has available, for example, saying that a speaker for or against a motion has only a minute to speak. This, and other regulation, provides more people with time to convey their views, thereby increasing the meeting’s breadth.

The most important bonus which results from using such rules is the requirement that those proposing motions have to know their purpose prior to speaking. It eliminates the time wasted when those making proposals start talking before having thought their points out fully; this is especially significant in that discussion of any point can start immediately following the first motion -- speakers start out clear on their topics of discussion, and end up having actually reached a somewhat workable conclusion. Furthermore, speakers are chosen in order, and speak in order, thereby ensuring that no one feels left out, and that all view are adequately represented despite the views of the chair.

In student council meetings recently, the minutes have appeared, reading something like “Joe said that . . . Sally said that . . . someone mentioned . . . someone else mentioned . . . Bess said . . .” If meetings were held under better and more effective rules of procedure, the various speeches of these people would be separated distinctly, and the student council would have a more accurate idea of the consensus of opinion before taking a vote. As things stand, speeches are run together, one onto another without a break, and members of the council make motions without knowing their proposal when they start to speak. For example, a council member at the last meeting, in proposing a motion to adjourn, actually started out trying to respond to a previous statement by the student body president -- this lengthened the meeting by a full 20 seconds. Imagine thirty people doing that twice in every meeting -- that’s fully twenty minutes, out of a forty-minute meeting!

In any discussion of rules of order, one must be extremely careful to recognize the fact that rules are not constant from organization to organization. The UN runs under its own variation of the rules, and the same is true of the U.S. Congress. The rules of order are modified by various organizations, given numberings, special names, and all sorts of tiny and inconsequential changes are made. The Student Council has the right to create its own rules of order, just as any organization. The only truly important aspect of creating new rules is that they must be consistent and fully developed, and so the members of the council should have no trouble devising such a system.

In the future, council meetings can be more effective if only the members take the effort or support the new constitutional amendment, proposed recently by a junior class officer, which would create the office of Parliamentarian, a student-body-elected officer, who should ensure that members use and understand the appropriate set of rules in student council meetings. Such an improvement would surely benefit the council, and increase productivity and the satisfaction of the student body.


This page created for The Subterranean Crusader by John W. Earl. Last modified January 28, 1996.