Point of Order! The story behind Robert’s Rules

Written by: Meghan

Order, Order! A reported 90 percent of organizations in the U.S. are governed by Robert's Rules

In our day-to-day lives, we don’t do much in the same manner as we did in 1876. To be sure, we still use the telephone, an invention for which Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent in 1876.  And we still read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which first appeared that same year. In fact, there’s another holdover from that era: Robert’s Rules.

If you’ve ever attended a formal meeting at university, you’ve probably heard the term “Robert’s Rules” thrown around. Although it’s difficult to gauge, a reported 90 percent of organizations in the United States are governed by Robert’s Rules. But what exactly are they?

Simply put, Robert’s Rules are a convention of rules governing parliamentary-style meetings, and have become a classic since they were first published in the United States in February 1876. When Brigadier-General Henry Robert, an engineering officer in the post-Civil War Army, was left tongue-tied in his attempts to lead a church meeting in San Francisco, he endeavored to ensure it never happened again. “His embarrassment was supreme,” according to the official Robert’s Rules website.

“To bring order out of chaos, he decided to write Robert’s Rules of Order,” the website continues. Now the go-to guide on parliamentary procedure, more than 5 million copies of the manual have been sold in its various incarnations.

Craig Ruttan, a former vice president in student government at the University of Toronto, explains that Robert’s Rules ensures order and fairness in student council meetings. “It helps ensure everyone gets their opinion heard and is treated fairly, and ensures due process and consideration is given to all motions.”

Admittedly a “big fan of procedure in general,” Ruttan, who now works at the Ontario Legislature, points out that the conventions also help guarantee legitimacy, especially when it comes to precedence. “Not only does it help student governments conduct business more effectively, it also grants them greater legitimacy in defending past decisions.”

Although highly technical and seemingly archaic, the current stewards of Robert’s Rules have made strides in adapting them to modern society. Now in its 11th edition, the manual is available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic. Robert’s Rules now consider 21st issues such as video conferencing, and their lexicon has been updated to include terms such as “chairwoman.”

“I’m sure there are elements that are outdated, but I’m a fan of the general concepts,” explains Ruttan. “While it’s not the only possible legitimate system, I think overall it functions fairly well.”

Now more than 700 pages long, Robert’s Rules of Order may seem counterintuitive to today’s fast-paced, frenetic way of life. But like any good parliamentarian, Ruttan argues that taking the time to do your homework pays off.

“Like any formal system of rules, it privileges those who take the effort to learn them, which means they can use them to their advantage.”

 Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress/Flickr

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