Board members use parliamentary procedure in a board meeting.

Everything Boards Need to Know About Parliamentary Procedure (Part One)

The last article in our series, All About It — where we take an in-depth look at the topics that fascinate us the most — we discussed Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert’s Rules make up one of the most widely used frameworks for deliberation in the United States. Spend five minutes researching Robert’s Rules, and you’re bound to come across the term “parliamentary procedure”. But what exactly is parliamentary procedure? How does it relate to Robert’s Rules and governance as a whole? Let’s find out in the first installment of this two-part deep dive.

The History

Parliamentary procedure has been traced all the way back to the year 750 BC, that is to say it’s about as old as democracy itself. To “rule by the people” (the literal Greek translation of “democracy”) implies the representation of the people. That means meetings. Unsurprisingly, the need for an orderly framework of conduct became apparent almost immediately.

Fast forward in time to Anglo-Saxon tribes settling across Europe. Each tribe had its own assembly known as a witenagemot made up of tribal landowners. By the time the Anglo-Saxons had made their way into what would become Britain, these assemblies were largely whittled down to include only the wealthy or noble-born. This early enforcement of the idea that governing assemblies be limited to those of higher status laid the seeds for what would become the modern boardroom.

We start to see the word “parliament” used in reference to a governing assembly following the migration of Anglo-Saxon tribes to the land that would become the United Kingdom. The first English Parliament was comprised of members of the Magnum Concilium (or “Great Council”), an assembly of holy men and landowners across the Kingdom of England. Early parliaments adopted many rules which are still in use today (though most have evolved or been expanded upon throughout the years). These include discussing one topic at a time and avoiding personal attacks when debating.

From the early days of formal parliamentary procedure it’s not hard to fill in the blanks in history. Settlement of the United States, a handful of bloody wars, then enter General Henry Martyn Robert with the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies (aka “Robert’s Rules”). But his rules weren’t published until 1876. That’s important for two reasons: (1) parliamentary procedure (on which Robert’s Rules are based) predates the pocket manual by several centuries, (2) America went 100 years without a standardized structure for running a meeting!

The Difference

Now that we know the history behind parliamentary procedure in relationship to Robert’s Rules, let’s talk about how the conceptual difference between the two. “Parliamentary procedure” refers to the rules of order used in the English Parliament and many other governing bodies across the world.

In conversation, however, people typically use the term “parliamentary procedure” when referring to the higher-level concept or theory behind governing a meeting while “Robert’s Rules” refers strictly to applying that specific ruleset.

In most cases, an assembly writes a set of rules known as “bylaws” which are supplemented by a parliamentary authority — a rulebook dictating how that assembly will run its meetings. One of the most popular parliamentary authorities is Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert’s Rules of Order is a manual for parliamentary procedure based on the English Parliament. The English Parliament follows a set of parliamentary procedures known as “Westminster procedures” or the “Westminster system”. The Westminster system refers to a parliamentary system of government. The United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries use the Westminster parliamentary system.

The parliamentary procedures employed by the United States Congress evolved from the Westminster system used by the English Parliament. Our parliamentary system is referred to as “American procedures” and is favored over the Westminster system in many countries.

That wraps up the first half of our deep dive into parliamentary procedure. You can check out our story on Robert’s Rules of Order here. For more guides and insights on corporate governance, check out our blog. For the best resource in making better decisions, schedule a demo of Directorpoint’s board management software!

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