Effective politics in a democratic culture

If you are elected to the board, or participate in any meetings where the decisions are the result of a vote where the assembly is using a form of Rules of Order, then you are a politician. If you want to do your job effectively you need to be practical about how the business of being a politician works.

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Please note that we will be making further edits to this article. The concepts are valid, and we had promised that we’d post them for use now. Sometime in the next few weeks (when I have some time to fiddle here) I will probably split this into 2 or 3 articles. In my mind this links to the idea of separating workshops from governing meetings. Stay tuned. Thanks for your patience. …Robert

Take control of the agenda

Many people hope that a board position is a kind of workshop where first ideas are put on the agenda for discussion. Then the group noodles the ideas until some sort of consensus arises. This is framed as a resolution, there is a vote, and it is approved.

This is the way it works for many boards, especially those boards that are managed by the staff. The staff present ideas to the board in bite-sized chunks, and when the board has voted the members feel they are probably making some useful contribution to the organization.

This is okay if the board is really acting only as a senior think-tank. It can also help the staff to know what direction to take the organization. The problem is that the work of the board is probably quite shallow, the members of the board are not attending to their fiduciary responsibilities, and each is probably not ensuring that the board is truly fulfilling its leadership position. To put a finer edge on this, the board is probably failing to govern.

I have found that the ability to set the agenda is a very powerful tool. This is true in any assembly, not just for the work of boards. As a consultant to PG boards, part of my job is to try to help the board take charge of its own processes. One important process is determining how the board will use its governing time.

If the staff, or the chair of the meeting, presents an agenda, most board members simply assume that is what must be discussed. When people are given a topic — almost any topic — I find that most will work diligently to contribute to the discussion. But, perhaps surprisingly, folks are really passive about taking a pro-active position when they think the agenda items are not appropriate.

On a Policy Governance (PG) board, each person has a fiduciary responsibility to the entire ownership to govern with integrity. The PG literature provides some instruction as to what are appropriate topics for discussion at a board meeting. It is part of the Chair’s role to facilitate the setting of the agenda. But if the staff, the chair, or other members put forth agenda items that they want discussed, or there are matters that are seductive because the topics are interesting and current, but may not be the most important items for the board, it is up to the other members to bring the meeting back on track.

There are some realities to operating in an environment where decisions are regulated by the Rules of Order — this is most democratic meetings. There are systems other than the Rules of Order, such as consensus, that your board might explore, but most boards use the Rules, or a relaxed form of the Rules. The essential aspect of the Rules is that decisions are decided by a majority vote. (Note, some of the material in this article is repeated in the linked article on consensus).

If the agenda is not satisfactory to you, and you can convince a majority of the assembly that it is not appropriate, you have an obligation to amend it. If you remain silent, you cannot claim to be a victim, and you will have failed in your responsibilities.

Prepare your case in advance of the meeting

Have you ever gone to a meeting and the results seem to be a forgone conclusion? Oh, you were permitted to have your say, but when the vote came, the discussion didn’t really seem to make much difference. Did you feel ambushed? Did it make you angry? If all you did was go away angry, you didn’t bother to learn how you could have done your job better. You won’t like what you are about to read; but if you think about it, it may make you a better board member. This is not just about serving on boards, it is about participating productively in a democracy.

If the Rules of Order are used, both the chair and the participants should learn that the whole purpose of the Rules is to allow the assembly to arrive at a speedy decision. Whenever I hear someone say, “Let’s not get bogged down in parliamentary procedure,” I know I am with a group that understands neither the principles nor the process. Unfortunately, this is frequently the situation in many organizations. Often the consequences are endless debates with no positive resolutions.

When the group understands the process, things can move swiftly and even fairly informally. Often, when a motion is to be introduced, there is already a plan to have someone to be the champion of the resolution, and someone to second it. Otherwise, after there are a few introductory remarks on a new topic by various members, the chair will ask for a motion or the meeting will move on to something else.

When there is a motion, it is followed by debate that moves around the room, with dialog (back and forth discussion between two people) limited or non-existent. Dialog, or conversation, is actually counterproductive, and an easy trap for a group. (The value of debate or talking sticks vs. conversation is the subject for a whole separate article here).

When the competing ideas have been expressed, the matter should move easily to a vote. Everyone accepts the will of the majority, knowing that they had an opportunity to make their case. When the issue at hand is contentious, the chair may be more formal about the application of the Rules. This helps speed a decision.

One of the reasons members should know the Rules is so that they understand their options. For instance, if a member tries to raise a matter that almost no one in the room wants to discuss, while the person is making the motion another member may interrupt to say, “I object to consideration of this question.” That is not a rude comment, it is a high order motion for which a second is not required and no debate is permitted. The Chair immediately puts this objection to a vote, and if carried by 2/3 of the assembly, the original motion is out of order and cannot be considered further. If the members do not feel they know enough to make a decision on an issue, or simply do not want to deal with it at the current meeting, they can decide to postpone it, table it, or send it to a committee. I have seen situations where a group has crafted a carefully worded motion and has even distributed some thoughtful back-up material, and was hoping for a respectful airing of the issue at the meeting. They were appalled at the speed with which an assembly exercised one of these options and passed on to new business.

The Rules result in a decision that reflects the will of the majority. The minority can still be (or represent) a large number of people, and they can feel hurt by the process. That is part of democracy.

When operating in a democratic environment, members should not be naive about the process. For a motion to carry, it must have the support of a majority of the voting members. Determining the will of the majority is the business of the meeting.

The business of the meeting is not to give issues an airing, or to provide people a platform to express themselves.

In my opinion, only an unsophisticated member would propose an important motion without considerable confidence that it will be carried. The principle of majority rule implies a political situation. The place to ensure votes-of-support is in private conversations before the meeting.

This process of asking for private meetings to make your case is called, “lobbying,” and it is a legitimate part of our democratic way of life. I don’t know what the President of the United States has on his/her agenda today, but it is likely that a good part of that time will be spent on the phone, or in personal meetings, where the President will be attempting to persuade legislators to support some initiative. It is not described in the Rules, but it is the business of promoting a good idea. Members who wish to participate effectively — such as yourself — need to learn to become skilled in the process.

If this sounds like I am recommending political ambushes and back-room deals, the reader is missing the point. When presenting your case, you know the difference between being frank and diligent or sly and conniving.

If the meetings are going to be efficient — the reason for choosing to operate under the Rules of Order — then much of the discussion should happen in advance. If you are promoting a concept and will propose a motion, do your lobbying as part of your preparation. It is the best way to be effective, and you should see it as part of your job.

When you lobby, you are talking to individuals. It is a conversation. You should probably be listening more than talking. This is where you will discover the objections to your proposal. In the process, you may decide that you have to modify or abandon your position.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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