Parliamentary procedure: What is a parliamentary authority?

Using Robert’s Rules of Order to help build an official parliamentary authority allows groups to run effective meetings and members to feel like a valuable part of the process.

This is one in a series of articles on parliamentary procedure and how to conduct more effective organizational meetings. For a complete list in this series go to the Parliamentary Procedure resource.

As a professional registered parliamentarian working for Michigan State University Extension, I have heard statements about why groups don’t want to run their meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order, a popular guide on how a board should establish, as the title suggests, its rules of order.

Reasons for being reluctant to use Robert’s Rules include not wanting to lose the ability to think creatively or fear that it gives too much power to a board’s president.

When I hear this reluctance I typically ask what rules they would prefer to use instead. The responses then consist of insisting their group doesn’t use parliamentary procedure or that they “have their own way of doing it.” Sometimes I am met with a blank stare.

Needless to say, these assumptions and fears about Robert’s Rules are untrue, but do prevail among many voluntary and governmental boards. The misconceptions of a tool as useful as Robert’s Rules and the prevalent lack of written rules of order in meetings have motivated me to train boards who value democratic principles. 

My goal as an educator with MSU Extension is to show members of deliberative assemblies how rules of order such as Robert’s Rules actually help a board be creative and remain composed. And by having solid procedures in place, the power remains within the board’s hands.

But let’s take a step back and discuss what parliamentary authority is.

A parliamentary authority contains the rules an organization will use to run their meetings and issues related to the parliamentary process. It is not to be confused with organizational governing documents such as a corporate charter, constitution or bylaws, which contain the organizational rules. Robert’s Rules of Order is the most commonly used parliamentary authority and as such there are many resources available to the public on how to most effectively use it.

The parliamentary authority is adopted within the bylaws and defines the rules related to the orderly transaction of business.  It is always recommended that an organization formally adopt a generally accepted manual of parliamentary law to function as the authority. Often, even when an authority has not been formally adopted groups use certain rules of order found in a common authority such as Robert's Rules of Order.  An organization can adopt special rules of order that deviate from those specified within the named parliamentary authority. Unlike a rule in the corporate charter or bylaws, a rule of order may be suspended from time to time as needed.  

All parliamentary authorities are based on the following principles of parliamentary law:

Rules of parliamentary law balance the rights of individuals or groups within an organization’s total membership. These rules are based on a regard for the right:

  • of the majority
  • of the minority, especially a strong minority greater than one third
  • of individual members
  • of absentees
  • of all of these together

Ultimately, the will of the majority decides what matters, but only after full and free discussion. The rights of all must be protected.

This is one in a series of articles on parliamentary procedure and how to conduct more effective organizational meetings. For a complete list in this series go to the Parliamentary Procedure resource.

Watch MSU Extension for monthly articles posted on commonly asked questions about how to use parliamentary procedure. As a professional registered parliamentarian with the National Association of Parliamentarians, the primary reference for the answers to the questions will be based on Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 11th Edition. See the Robert's Rules Society for information on how to adopt RONR as your organization’s parliamentary authority.

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