Electronic Meetings and Discussions

It is certainly true that parliamentary authorities such as Robert’s Rules were written a long time ago, when things like email and the internet didn’t exist even in fantasy. That doesn’t imply that the procedures are out of date, though. By comparison, the Constitution of the United States of America is still a relevant and guiding document for many of our modern laws, even though it was written almost a hundred years earlier than Robert’s Rules! It’s safe to say that any collection of procedures should be a living document, changing and updating over time to fit the needs of the audience. In a like vein, RONR has been updated over the years to stay current with each passing generation. It is why we are currently using the 10th Edition of the book, and why a group of parliamentary scholars constantly review and consider things that need changing.

The 11th Edition of RONR is scheduled for publication in 2011, and will have the most comprehensive set of changes in its long history. Many of those changes will specifically address electronic communications and how those apply to parliamentary procedures. Remember that the 10th Edition modifications were started back in the late 1990’s, at a time when the internet was coming into power, and the web was just beginning to take hold in our society. At the time, the authors of the changes knew that they needed to address electronic communications (teleconferences, for example, had been going on for decades, and email had been in use for 20 years), so they framed their comments with current technology in mind. The 11th Edition will go several steps further and be updated to represent the past decade of technological marvels that have come to pass. Suffice to say that we are all excited to see what the 11th Edition will bring to the table.

In the meantime, do not despair, because the 10th Edition has much to say. To start with, RONR (p. 482-483, l. 28-35, 1-5) speaks directly to videoconferences and teleconferences for meetings. Although the context of this chapter is committee meetings, there is nothing precluding the same processes to be used in other meeting types, including board of director meetings. Lines 28-33 read:

“The bylaws may authorize a board or committee (or even a relatively small assembly) to meet via videoconference or teleconference. If they do, then such a meeting must be conducted by a technology that allows all persons participating to hear each other at the same time (and, if a videoconference, to see each other as well).” [underlines are my emphasis]

The reason for the underlined passage is a key element inherent in RONR — that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and participate in the process. Without that mutual communication opportunity, the rights of an individual are being restricted, and Robert’s Rules goes to great lengths to make sure this never happens. This is further explained in lines 33-35, and lines 1-2 on the next page:

“The opportunity for simultaneous communication is central to the deliberative character of the meeting, and is what distinguishes it from attempts to do business by postal or electronic mail or by fax […]”

In the case of meetings — of almost any shape or size — electronic communications are allowed. RONR does advise that the bylaws should specifically authorize (or deny) the use electronic facilities for types of meetings, and that standing rules or special rules of order should specify the logistics for the electronic meeting. That is, how the meeting is started, how individuals are to be recognized for motions and comments, how voting will be taken, how recesses are handled, etc (RONR, p. 483, l. 2-5).

So what about the use of email in deliberative assemblies? Does the comment about simultaneous communication negate the use of email as a mechanism for deliberations? Well, it’s clear that RONR does not recommend this approach, even though it is commonly done in today’s electronic world. On page 2 or RONR, as a footnote, is the following comment:

“Efforts to conduct the deliberative process by postal or electronic mail or facsimilie (fax) transmission — which are not recommended — must be expressly authorized by the bylaws and should be supported by special rules of order or standing rules as appropriate, since so many situations unprecedented in parliamentary law may arise and since many procedures common to parliamentary law are not applicable.”

This isn’t just a case of CYA (Covering Your Assets); there are indeed a number of parliamentary procedures that don’t apply to electronic mail communications. For example, how does one obtain the floor in email? In a face-to-face meeting, someone could stand or raise their hand. There is no equivalent in email. This is why it is important to delineate the aspects of the process in standing rules. Since email is entirely non-deterministic, meaning that it is indeterminate when an email might be received, regardless of when it was sent, it would be hard to say who actually “raised their hand” first. One solution to this problem is to designate a trustworthy party (perhaps an independent third party) who is the arbiter of “when” an email is received by the group. Of course, this is a bit excessive in most cases, since I can’t think of a common situation where the exact, precise order of email comments is truly relevant to the discussion at hand.

(One possible situation would be if a certain notice is given — say “comments must be received within three days” or similar — then it might be difficult to determine if an actual comment was received before the deadline. This would hopefully not be a big deal, but it could arise).

In any case, RONR discusses the use of electronic communications in several areas, including a detailed description of voting (RONR, p. 410-11, 404-405) and even a discussion of what to do when roll calls can be done electronically, say via mechanisms for checking in on teleconferences, and when those same mechanisms can be used for registering votes (RONR, p. 408, l. 4-28).

Summarizing, any organization can use electronic resources in the execution of their meetings, deliberations, voting and operations. They keys to proper use of electronic communications are:

  1. Specify in the bylaws when electronic communications and mechanisms can be used and when they cannot be used. This should include the type of meetings, the type of deliberations and so on. The bylaws are not the place for the operational aspects (see the next point), but they should specify the basis for use of electronic communications.
  2. Specify in standing rules, or special rules of order, exactly how the electronic resources will be used. The logistics of meetings, recognition of speakers, counting of votes, what to do when equipment fails, how to recess and adjourn and so on.
  3. In the case of email processes, make sure that everything is finely detailed, enough that there should be no question of how the email processes are handled. Email can easily be used to handle day-to-day operations where there are no questions of equity, but when the rights of an individual might be restricted, those processes must be clearly defined and arranged.
  4. A review of your organization’s current bylaws should be conducted in order to see if there are clauses in the bylaws that would preclude the use of electronic communications. If such clauses are found, then the bylaws might need to be amended.

Where situations arise that are not covered by the bylaws or standing rules, fall back on the basic principles of RONR: one subject at a time, democratic process, the right of an individual, and the rights of the group to make their own decisions. If you stay true to RONR, even faced with vexing electronic questions, then there is no reason why electronic communications can’t be a perfect augment to today’s organizational process.