Reading at work: Sturgis, Standard code of parliamentary procedure

[ Alice Sturgis, The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, 4e., Mc Graw-Hill, 2000. ]

As I mentioned, I wanted to make sure the team gave some additional support to the governance work being done for OpenSolaris. When I thought about it for a little bit, I realized that, while we have recent and valuable experiences from the open source communities that have established organizational structures and codes, setting up societies and deliberative bodies and their rules is something that’s been going on for a while. So, on a late night dealing with a disk problem at home, I read most of the transcripts from the U. S. Senate’s Oral History Program’s interviews of Floyd M. Riddick, who was Senate Parliamentarian from 1964 – 1974. (There were a number of reasons I ended up here, but one was to determine what lessons bodies like the Senate might have for a fledgling organization.)

The fact that a word like “parliamentarian” exists means you have a solid angle for searching, as well as a hint that you might not need to reinvent everything. If you search, you’ll find there are two U. S. national organizations for parliamentarians, and that the two primary rulesets are Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised and The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. There’s a whole industry around RONR and much information online; the SCPP is a complete procedure, simplified to remove some of the more unusual parts of RONR, so I thought I would work through that. (So more reading at work.)

One of the first quotations in the book, in Chapter One, is in turn a quotation from Clarence Cannon, who was Parliamentarian of the U. S. House of Representatives (and subsequently a Representative), which reads:

These rules of Parliament and Congress are designed for bicameral bodies, generally with paid memberships, meeting in continuous session, requiring a majority for a quorum, and delegating their duties largely to committees. Their special requirements … have produced highly complex and remarkably efficient systems of rules peculiar to their bodies, but which are, as a whole, unsuited to the needs of the ordinary assembly.

— Clarence Cannon, “Rules of Order”, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1964.

I interpret this paragraph as “imitate us at your own risk”.

But SCPP does identify when reasonable alternatives to its formulation might be considered, and how they may or may not lead to distortion of the principles of majority-based decision making or the silencing of minority viewpoints. For instance, the idea of requiring a unanimous result for a particular vote means that a minority of one can block resolution of the motion being voted upon. Similarly, a supermajority voting requirement means that a smaller minority can block that action. (Perhaps I’m just pleased that the reference frame that’s being taken is similar to an engineering frame: “how do we construct an assembly so that it can make progress on difficult issues?”.)

I’m still reading SCPP, mostly with an eye to being ready to design‘s support for various kinds of voting, but feel free to recommend you have a look at it now.

[ T: OpenSolaris ]