Alternatives to Robert’s Rules

Alternatives to Robert’s Rules

Some people complain that Robert’s Rules is too complex to understand. Some people say that parliamentary procedure itself is too complex or too unfair. They say the act of “making motions” and the processing of “majority vote” should not require a zillion rules.

Well, guess what? It isn’t a monopoly. You can shop around.

If you don’t like the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order (namely, the 11th edition published in 2011 which is titled “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised”, published by DaCapo Press), then your organization is free to adopt another competing parliamentary manual.

Indeed, before 1876, the first year of publication of the original edition of the little pocket-sized book by Henry Martyn Robert, all organizations necessarily had to draft their own customized set of parliamentary rules, because they had to – there was no neat, complete compilation available to the average civic organization. That little pocket-sized handbook of H. M. Robert filled a marketing niche which had zero competitors.

Or, your organization can adopt no manual at all and draft their own 100% customized rules. That’s right – complete anarchy except for whatever your bylaws specify plus whatever unique rules you create yourselves. There’s nothing stopping you from re-inventing the wheel – indeed, a 200-page, 300-page, 400-page “wheel,” depending on how complete you want your customized manual to be. But do you really have 3 to 6 years free for such an undertaking?

If you don’t want to spend 3-6 years drafting your own parliamentary manual, and if you don’t like the 700+ pages of the current edition of Robert’s Rules, then what is the alternative? Where can you turn to for a set of democratic rules ready to be applied? What real alternative is out there, right now, which can improve upon, or can replace, Robert’s Rules?

Good news on this front: Someone has taken a poll.

One parliamentarian, Jim Slaughter of North Carolina, wrote an article (see footnote) which lists the most popular alternatives to Robert’s Rules. In his poll, he asked working parliamentarians what parliamentary authority their clients were using. Slaughter’s findings were as follows.

• 90% use “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised”
• 8% use “The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure”
• 3% use some other parliamentary authority

Since #2 on the list is “The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure” (abbreviated “TSC” for “The Standard Code”), then let’s discuss this book for its potential to replace Robert’s Rules.

The author of TSC was the late Alice F. Sturgis (1885-1974) who had some serious credentials working with the United Nations. She taught at Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) and the University of California (Berkeley, CA). Her first book on parliamentary procedure was published in 1925. After the death of Sturgis, the revision of the book has been in the hands of a committee of the American Institute of Parliamentarians. The current edition is the 2000 4th edition.

Some large organizations have taken the big step, and have swapped the Sturgis book for the Robert book: the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, and the United Automobile Workers Union.

What is different in the Sturgis book? To a non-parliamentarian reader, the rules in the current edition of TSC might appear so similar to Robert’s Rules that the differences are not obvious. Indeed, any parliamentary manual you choose must necessarily have a significant overlap with all other parliamentary manuals, due to the nature of 300 years of British customs and traditions being passed on more or less intact to all democratically-elected legislatures. The basics have not changed in 2,000 years. – (a.) Propose an idea; (b.) Debate the advantages and disadvantages; (c.) Vote whether to carry it out or not. The terminology has been likewise preserved down through the centuries. Whatever differences exist will be regarding specific motions, specific applications, and not wholesale changes.

What you get with the Sturgis’ TSC fourth edition is satisfaction for a few of the most popular demands over the 11th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order: (a.) fewer pages; (b.) larger print; (c.) fewer motions; (d.) change of jargon to plain English.

No surprise here. One thing you can count on is that today’s competitors to Robert’s Rules will have simplified something or condensed something. That is, no one is putting out a parliamentary manual of more pages, more rules, than the current edition of Robert’s Rules, namely, 716 numbered pages, and the book lists 86 numbered motions in its table. How many of the 86 motions will you see in your lifetime?

Beware the difference in philosophy. The Sturgis book, plus all similar condensations and simplifications, are meant to be understood as a book of essential rules, with principles covering implicitly what the written rules do not cover explicitly. In contrast, the Robert book is meant to be encyclopedic is scope, and is meant to cover every contingency.

What does this mean? It means that if you adopt Sturgis or a similar simplification, then there will be parliamentary situations which the book won’t cover. Whereas, in contrast, it is highly unlikely that any parliamentary situation you run into for the rest of your life won’t have a corresponding rule in Robert’s Rules of Order.

Here is an analogy. — It’s like the difference between a hybrid/electric car vs. a SUV/Humvee: One vehicle will slowly and lightly get you from point A to point B, as long as points A & B aren’t too far apart and aren’t too steep. But the other vehicle is a monster truck, and there isn’t any place it cannot go. — That’s the difference between a watered-down manual which covers essential things, versus an industrial-strength manual which covers things you’ve never heard of and never will hear of.

That is why one book is 700+ pages long, and the competition is 200-300 pages long. The big book covers everything, and is meant to cover 100%. The smaller competition has deliberate gaps, and is meant to cover 50%-80% of all situations — the easy ones, the popular ones, the non-complex ones.

Here is another analogy using television as the medium: Robert’s Rules versus somebody else’s rules is like the difference in quantity of data between a movie trailer versus the actual film. One contains some sound bites, some highlights, and the core theme. The other contains every line of dialogue, every scene, and all themes and motifs.

Are there competitors to Sturgis? No, not really. All the other competitors are out of print. The paperback knock-offs that one might find in a keyword search are not recognized by any organization which I know of.

Nonetheless, if you are a fire fighter, then there is a fair chance that your parliamentary manual is going to be “Atwood’s Rules for Meetings” (Roswell Atwood, 1956, published by the International Association of Fire Fighters). Even more out of print than Atwood are older competitors: George Demeter’s manual. Franklin Kerfoot’s manual. Thomas B. Reed’s manual.

One more alternative to weigh and consider: State legislative houses use Mason’s manual (Paul Mason, latest edition 2010, published by the National Conference of State Legislatures). But Mason is not a true competitor to Robert or Sturgis because Mason’s manual is meant for full-time legislative bodies, and, as such, those rules won’t work for a once-a-month or once-per-quarter fraternity clubhouse meeting or a Little League board or a computer club.

That’s the situation. If you have reservations, concerns, doubts, or fears, about learning Robert’s Rules, or being victimized by Robert’s Rules, then you don’t have to take it. You can talk your organization into adopting a competitor, like “The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure,” or “Atwood’s Rules for Meetings.” And if you don’t like Sturgis nor Atwood either, then you can cowboy-up and roll your own — yes, draft your own rules of order, uniquely your own. All the inconsistencies and ambiguities will be of your own doing. Good luck.

But be careful what you wish for. If you don’t draft any rules, or if you draft too few rules, then you will be at the mercy of an untrained, unscrupulous chair with a hidden agenda, and you won’t have any way of fighting back.

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Jim Slaughter, “Parliamentary Practices of CPP’s in 2000,” Parliamentary Journal, XLII (Jan. 2001), 1-11.