Rules of Order

Rules of order are the procedures that give structure to democratic decision-making. The Solon Academy teaches the most important systems, including Robert's Rules of Order, Bourinot's Rules of Order and our own DEMOCRACY 2.0.

What are Rules of Order?

Democracy is a verb. At the most basic level democracy is the act of group decision-making. Rules of order are the operating system of democracy, the formally agreed upon system of procedures that give structure to that group decision-making process. Their purpose is to facilitate the orderly conduct of business that safeguards fundamental democratic rights in a fair and transparent manner. Every democratic organization must decide for itself how to structure their group decision-making and should choose carefully from the various systems, based on their own unique circumstances.

Why do we need Rules of Order?

Group decision-making is notoriously difficult and fraught with conflict. Rules of order should clearly set out what rights a member has and how they should go about exercising those rights, creating a fair and level playing field for all members to present their ideas. They require a delicate balance, being broad enough to apply to unforeseen situations but specific enough to admit only one reasonable and legally binding interpretation.

Balancing Rights in Conflict

Rules of order exist to protect and balance the rights of three distinct groups of members whose interests are often in conflict:

  1. Individual members have the most rights, including the right to vote, move and second motions, speak to motions, stand for office, freely participate in proceedings without obstruction and receive complete and timely information.
  2. The Minority: All of the rights associated with free and fair debate are in place largely to protect the rights of those who happen to hold the current minority position.
  3. The Majority: All of the mechanisms and procedures that are in place to insure order and the smooth, efficient and decisive resolution of business protect the rights of the current majority.

The Democratic Middle Path

Sadly, through neglect or oversight many organizations have no formally approved rules system, leading to the exercise of arbitrary authority, confusion, misunderstanding and conflict. Such groups often struggle with a deeply frustrating process that devolves into mob dysfunction or worse: dictatorship by the presiding officer. For democratic group decision-making to work effectively there must be order; democracy is meaningless if no decision is made. The rights of the members must be balanced against other factors such as the speed and efficacy of the process. When mob gridlock arises it is tempting to turn to dictatorship to sweep away the obstacles, yet we know that tyranny breeds all manner of abuse. We know where that path leads, and it is nowhere most of us want to go. Democratic rules of order try to build a procedural system that can chart a middle course between these extremes of mob anarchy and tyranny.

Which Rules of Order?

A properly structured self-governing democratic organization should immediately adopt a specific operating system to govern their internal decision-making. There are a range of rule systems to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the better-known ones are Robert’s Rules of Order, Bourinot's Rules of Order and the whole loosely connected and poorly codified spectrum of modified consensus models of decision-making. A particular democratic group must pick from the many rule systems, just as you might choose to run Windows, UNIX, or Mac OS on your computer. In the same way the choice of rule systems can dramatically improve or hinder the smooth functioning of a democratic organization.

The Usual Suspects

Robert’s Rules of Order

In North America the overwhelming majority of democratic organizations use Robert’s Rules of Order—from service clubs to large NGOs and city councils, right up to the United States Congress. The book was first self-published in 1876 as a pocket manual by Brigadier General Henry M. Robert, an engineer in the American army. Now in the 11th edition, it is no longer anything like “pocket" size. RRO strives to codify rules for almost every possible situation within a democratic meeting, exceeding 700 pages in the 11th edition. It succeeds brilliantly in being comprehensive, but this very strength makes it cumbersome and unwieldily for all but the largest of professional democratic organizations. If you are involved in an organization that uses Robert's Rules then the experts at The Solon Academy can help you navigate the arcane procedures of “Bob’s Book.”

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Bourinot’s Rules of Order

The "Canadian alternative" to Robert's Rules is Bourinot's Rules. Where Robert's Rules is based on the procedures of the American Congress, Bourinot's Rules are based on the procedures of the Canadian Parliament. Often touted as the "Canadian" rules of order system, Bourinot's Rules have all the problems but none of the benefits of Robert's Rules. It is shorter by far, but at the cost of clarity and specificity. It aims for the same goal, but misses the mark. If you think Bob’s Book is formal and stuffy, then Bournoit’s Rules will seem like a starched shirt on steroids. It also suffers from some ill-advised violations of fundamental democratic principles, leading to a system that does a disservice to the greater project of democracy itself. If your organization uses Bourinot’s Rules then the experts at the Solon Academy can help you navigate the pitfalls of this archaic system.

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Consensus Models of Decision Making

Consensus models reject the "more than half" threshold that has been the defining characteristic of democracy for 2500 years. Instead they require a much higher vote; pure consensus requires 100% unanimity, while "modified" consensus models require “super majority” thresholds way above 50%. The Consensus models grow from a widespread and justified frustration with the existing models of democratic decision making. Unfortunately these experiments, while having laudable goals, suffer from the fatal naiveté of idealism divorced from pragmatic experience. By abandoning the principle of Majority Rule they have created an anti-democratic system that can not survive a collision with the messy facts of everyday reality. The Solon Academy does not teach Consensus and strongly advises against using it. The simple fact is: Consensus does not work.

Why Consensus Does Not Work

The Solon Academy's Alternative

DEMOCRACY 2.0: Rules of Order for Everyday Democrats

The KISS alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order. DEMOCRACY 2.0 is a meeting system for practical use by ordinary people facing everyday realities, specifically tailored to fit the needs of small to medium-sized non-profits. The D2.0 system has been crafted by the Solon Academy to be the simplest possible parliamentary authority compatible with smooth and efficient democratic decision-making. It is designed for those whom the excessive formality of systems such as Robert’s Rules is a needless waste of scarce time and energy better spent on doing the business of the organization rather than quibbling over procedural niceties.

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