Parliamentary Deliberations Procedures -- An Adaptation of Robert's Rules, for Meeting by E-mail

From: Joe Sullivan
Date: June 20, 1996
To: Members & Observers of Objective II Committee, Unified Code Project
via Internet:
Subject: js6620a: Deliberations procedures, restated

At the invitation of the chair of one of our sister committees (Committee V, on format), I recently reworked the "deliberations procedures", a.k.a. "Adaptations to Robert's Rules, for the Internet", to incorporate the minor changes that we had made over time and also to make them more general, that is less specific to the situation of Committee II as it was at the time of original publication. It occurs to me that this committee might also like to see them again in this revised form, as a more current single reference.

These rules are substantially the same as we established on July 25, 1993 for Committee II's work. There have been only a few minor adjustments as experience was gained. In general, the procedures have served us well -- mainly because they deviate as little as possible from the well-established Robert's Rules, a good example of solid wisdom from the last century (like braille!).

(As mentioned in the status report, I'll be away for a while -starting right about ... now.)

Deliberations Procedures for an "E-mail Meeting" (Adapting Robert's Rules for the Internet)

Purpose: This is to detail procedures by which a small committee, the members of which may be scattered throughout the world's time zones, may carry on work in an orderly and effective fashion, while relying almost exclusively upon electronic mail ("e-mail) communication. (Close functional equivalents to e-mail, such as an electronic bulletin board system [BBS] used in a particular way, could similarly be used.) These procedures are to enable the participants not only to share information and opinion, that is to discuss, but also to make decisions, without the necessity of holding a meeting in the ordinary sense, or a conference telephone call, or any other kind of conference in which all the participants must be present simultaneously.

General Concept and Grounding in RRO: The basic idea behind these procedures is that the committee is actually engaged in a continuous meeting, that is a particular kind of "deliberative assembly" as envisioned in Roberts Rules of Order (RRO), except that electronic mail communications take the place of the usual oral, face-to-face communications of an ordinary meeting. Accordingly, all the provisions of RRO (specifically the 1990 edition), to the extent that they can be applied and do not conflict with the explicit provisions given here, are incorporated by reference.

Primacy of the committee's work: The procedures given here are to establish helpful formalities; they are not cast in stone, nor are they meant to be taken as ends in themselves. That is, if in any way they are found to be getting in the way of the committee's work, then of course the committee itself can and should change them, for the work itself is of primary importance. Nevertheless it is necessary to provide some starting-point, if only to provide procedures whereby, among other things, the procedures themselves can be changed.

Communications normally to be informal: Such necessary formalities notwithstanding, the members should be encouraged to be relatively informal in discussion, for the sake of the committee's productivity. That is, members should view their writings (e-mail messages) not as "published works" but as correspondence to the other members, for their productive use in the committee's work. It is a net loss to the committee's larger goals if members delay or avoid making their ideas, feelings and tastes known, just for fear that typing or brailling errors, or departures from the rules of grammar, or even partially formed arguments, might later come back to haunt them.

Constructive use and publication of communications: The other side of the foregoing rule is that members and observers of the committee should make only constructive use of these individual writings. That does not mean that they are "secret," as constructive use might naturally involve consultation with responsible, interested colleagues and other persons. Moreover, the entire collection of of writings might well be archived continuously as the "minutes of the meeting", for possible later reference by the members themselves or other legitimately interested persons (as may be determined by policies of a project within which the committee is working, or as established at the time of the committee's formation). It does mean, however, that none of these writings should be published, as in a newsletter or by placement upon an electronic bulletin board open to the general public, without the consent of the author.

Basis and continuity of work: Within the committee's scope of work as established at the time of its formation (for example, by a charge from a larger project), prior documents and the prior work of the committee itself are to be taken as the point of departure for continuing work. That does not mean that all such prior work is automatically sacred against the possibility of change. In general, and again within the established scope of the committee's activities, progress of some sort, usually including change, is essentially the work that is asked of the committee. It does mean, however, that each change and augmentation to such prior work is a step to be considered by the committee in the usual way--that is, by a motion that is placed before the committee, debated, and eventually voted upon.

Making of motions: A message that makes a motion should contain a paragraph, commencing "I move ...", that states the main points of the motion. In addition, such a message can, and generally should, contain at least initial or summary arguments for the proposed action. There should not be more than one motion in a single message.

Relevance of communications: Not every message need be a motion, related to a motion under consideration, or indeed related to any motion. General exhortations, background information, and grand visions all have their place as they can be helpful to long-range thinking. (Observance of generally accepted communications etiquette is nevertheless understood, and that implies among other things that messages placed to the committee's attention should have some overall relevance to the work of the committee.) One of the benefits of an "electronic mail meeting" is that the participants can all be heard while talking, in effect, at the same time--so there is no need to manage the timing of speeches or their subjects, as there is in a physical meeting or in a telephone conference.

Relevance and scope of motions: The committee may not entertain motions whose adoption would cause it substantially to abandon its very purpose, or that otherwise lie outside the established scope of its activities.

Clarity of motions and their effect: The chair, or designated person as directed by the chair, must promptly record any motion that is passed and also prepare the alterations to any affected documents, such as a standing or final committee report. This implies that the committee can consider only those motions that clearly delineate the changes to be made or other actions to be taken. By implication, it may be necessary for the chair to refer back for clarification any motions that are too vague or overly broad to permit a ready understanding of the changes or other actions that are implied. The chair may establish further specific guidelines regarding the scope and clarity of motions, and if necessary should assist members in the formulation of motions that meet those requirements.

Seconding of motions: A second is required before a motion is put up for actual consideration by the committee. (While this formality is often waived in small conventional meetings, it is necessary in an "electronic mail meeting" because, given the one to three weeks or even longer that it usually takes to act upon motions, too much time could be spent on motions that have no real chance of passage.) A second may be given by e-mail message, and if so should be phrased "I second ..." with some clear reference to the motion being seconded. (As a separate matter of mechanics and convenience, the chair may establish a unique "file name" to be associated with each communication for archiving and other reference purposes.) A second by e-mail may well contain debating points or other discussion relevant to the motion. A member may also communicate a second to the chair by some side means if necessary -- for example, by telephone call or fax -- and in that case only the basic fact of the second is considered to have been communicated to the committee as a whole.

Expiration of unseconded motions: If neither seconded nor withdrawn, a motion expires automatically after four weeks.

Status of motion when seconded: Promptly upon receipt of a second, the chair will either put the motion before the committee for consideration, or if it appears to be in conflict with a motion already under consideration, will put it in suspense for consideration as soon as action is taken upon the earlier motion. In either event, the chair will revise and reissue a standard report message describing the status of the meeting. That message will contain lists of motions, with appropriate references and brief subject descriptions, as follows: (1) motions awaiting a second; (2) seconded motions in suspense; (3) motions actively under consideration; and (4) motions most recently acted upon and the actions taken. A "status message" will be clearly identified as such that all such messages may be easily found and distinguished from other messages that the chair may send. (See the next section for more on the chair's status reports, and an example.)

Simultaneity of motions: As implied by the foregoing, several unrelated motions may be under consideration at the same time.

Assignment of voting deadline: Either at the time a motion is put up for consideration, or shortly thereafter, the chair will assign a date for the close of voting on the motion. That date will not be less than one week from the date of the assignment; the actual period will vary from one to three weeks, or even longer, depending on such factors as perceived importance and the amount of study time that would be needed for an informed vote to take place.

Extension of voting period: The chair may extend the close of voting at any time, and at the request of any member will normally extend the close for at least a week beyond the originally assigned date. A motion to extend may also be processed in the usual way, and will naturally have priority over the affected motion.

Notification of voting period: The status message will be revised and reissued upon an assignment or change to a voting date.

Secondary motions: Secondary motions, such as to amend, refer to committee, etc., will be processed in a manner as closely analogous to the RRO procedures as possible, with the chair making such adjustments as necessary to accommodate the e-mail method of communication.

Chair as also a committee member: As is customary in small working committees, the chair may also participate as a regular member of the committee in all respects, and so may make, second, debate and vote upon motions. However, when specifically communicating as chair, as in the status report messages, the chair must not take part in debate or otherwise compromise the requirement that the chair, when acting as such, must be impartial.

Voting procedure: Votes should be sent to the chair in a communication that clearly identifies the motion being voted upon, so as to reach the chair on or before the closing date for voting. As with seconds, a vote by e-mail may well contain debate or discussion on the motion, while a communication by any other means is deemed to have conveyed only the basic fact of the vote to the committee as a whole. Votes may be sent any time after its active status is announced. Votes may also be changed at any time before the motion is decided, which will be no later than the closing date but may also be earlier, as described in the next paragraph.

Early decision of motion: To expedite the committee's work, whenever possible, a motion will be considered to be decided early, that is before the close of voting, if enough votes on one side are received that all the others could not change the outcome. In the usual case of motions to be decided by simple majority, this will happen if half or more of the eligible votes are cast against the motion, or if more than half are case in favor of the motion. Subsequently received votes, within the original time period, are recorded but in all other respects the motion is treated as decided.

Status message upon deciding a motion: The status message will be revised and reissued when a motion is decided, and all votes will be listed.

Counting and recording of votes: Unless specifically provided otherwise, a decision is taken by a simple majority of those voting; there is no quorum. A motion fails on a tie vote. Abstentions are not recorded, nor is there any practical difference between an explicit abstention and a simple failure to vote. (Sometimes people wish to be recorded as abstaining, as a way of expressing dislike for all the available choices or for the process. The expression of such opinions is to be encouraged, but in this context the practical way to do so is through a general message.)

Votes of maker and seconder: As a convenience, the maker of a motion is presumed to have voted in favor the the motion, unless the maker explicitly states that the vote is to be reserved or cast against. The same is true for the seconder. In any case, both maker and seconder, just as any other committee member, may subsequently change their votes during the voting period.

Votes placed out of sequence: If a member places a vote before a motion is seconded, that vote is also constructively interpreted as a second if it is in favor; if it is against, it is held in reserve, to be counted if the motion is subsequently seconded. This is just to avoid pointless message traffic in a case where the intent is obvious.

Presence and attention of members: As is implied by some of the time intervals mentioned, committee members should be checking their electronic mail about twice weekly, once weekly at a minimum. Members should inform the chair when they will be unable to keep up with mail for some period longer than a week, due to holidays, etc., so that if possible important business will not be scheduled in that period. (Routine business may go on, and of course it may simply not be possible to accommodate extended absences. However, if an important matter has been decided during the announced absence of a member, the chair will normally permit that member to move for reconsideration within a reasonable period after that member's return, without imposing the usual requirement that reconsideration may only be moved by a member who voted with the prevailing side in the original decision.)

The Chair's Status Reports

A key ingredient of these procedures is the chair's status report message, which must be issued whenever there is a change to the floor status of any motion -- notably, whenever any motion is either seconded or decided. It has a very basic yet important purpose: to keep everybody clear as to what is going on. The following is an example of such a report, which was issued for Committee II of the Unified Braille Code Research Project in early 1994. It is a relatively complex one, chosen because it illustrates several motions in various stages, but it is not really typical. (Much more commonly, just one motion is listed as seconded or decided.) The "notes" section has been omitted here for brevity, but typically it lists general news items such as observers who have joined the meeting's list server, projected absences of the chair or other committee members, reminders about procedure, final voting tallies for motions that had already been decided before the voting deadline and, as in this case, further explanations as to why some action was taken for a particular motion -- such as suspending a main motion while an amendment to that motion is considered.

From: Joe Sullivan Date: March 22, 1994
To: Members of Objective II Committee, Unified Code Project
via Internet:
Subject: zs4322: Chairman's Report on Status of the Meeting


By TC in file js4309: to amend motion js4224 per the suggestion, in BM4306, that the question mark be written without dot-5 when in word-final position. Seconded: JS. Voting deadline: March 19. Votes: for: TC, JS, BM, CD; against: MS. The motion is adopted.


By JS in file js4224, as amended by TC (see files js4309 and BM4306): to assign certain symbols to parentheses, quotations and question mark. (As amended, the dot 5 is dropped from the question mark in word-final position.) Seconded: TC. Voting deadline: March 29th. Votes recorded to date: for: JS, TC, EF, CD; against: none.




By BM in file bm4310, as an amendment to motion js4224: to write open parenthesis in word-initial position, and closing parenthesis in word-final position, without dot 5; and to disallow gh and ar contractions in those respective positions.

By BM in file bm4306, restated in bm4310: to interchange the braille representations for the full-stop (period, decimal point) with the apostrophe, and to discontinue the "dd" and "dis" contractions.



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