Democratic decision-making is inevitably messy, so it requires us to develop systems to help manage our dialogues. Naturally, some people are more allergic to messes than others—Henry Martyn Robert for example. Robert liked order, which shouldn’t be surprising since he was an engineer, Civil War soldier, and ultimately a brigadier general in the U.S. Army.
So when Robert was asked to preside over a church meeting and discovered chaos, he took steps to manage it. Recognizing that the United States had no uniform approach to parliamentary procedure at that time, Robert put together a short book on the subject in 1893, and millions of people have been called “out of order” ever since.
Robert’s primary accomplishment was to standardize meeting rules, taking bits and pieces from the English Parliament and the U.S. Congress. Robert’s Rules of Order now lives on in its tenth edition, with five million copies sold.
While much of parliamentary procedure is common-sense democracy and useful to keep meetings on track, some motions and procedures are better known as obstacles than mechanisms of human progress. Within this special category of annoying and offensive uses of parliamentary procedure (which drives some people to regret democracy near the end of meetings), probably none is more frequently misused, misunderstood and mangled by chairs than “calling the question.”
The procedure of moving the previous question is specifically intended to bring a matter, which is the subject of a motion already made, to an immediate vote by closing off debate. Within Robert’s Rules, this measure is not itself debatable, but it requires a two-thirds vote. This makes sense, because shutting down a discussion should be a serious concern, even though it is sometimes necessary.
Frequently, people say “I call the question” when they mean “Let’s vote.” Sometimes, submissive board chairs needlessly ask, “Would someone like to call for the question?” When used appropriately, calling the question should be a rare occurrence, and meeting chairs should allow discussion to occur naturally until it has run its course. It is the chair’s responsibility to put each question to the group when the debate appears to have closed, perhaps by asking, “Are you ready for the question?”
Too often, however, the step of achieving a two-thirds agreement on the calling of the question is skipped. A powerful person—often a chair—imposes a foreshortened discussion on the group. Unfortunately, much deeper problems that have to do with unexplored differences and disagreements about dialogue and process are often embedded in the scenario. Failing to deal with these deeper disagreements can cause disengagement of board members, the development of factions, and the repeated resurfacing of issues that have already been discussed.
“Calling the question” can be a valuable protection against windbags or small groups filibustering to bog down the clear intent of the vast majority, but in the hands of impatient Type-A personalities, it can turn meetings into breezy but uninformative races to adjourn, or prevent the airing of minority points of view. Yes, we want to get on with business, but we are also here to deliberate and be informed before voting. It may seem very business-like to slam through motions and approvals without discussion, but, like leaving the concert or ball game before the end to beat the traffic, it misses the point, and is ultimately irresponsible and shortsighted.
A wise chair recognizes that impatience with the length or breadth of discussions can indicate larger problems of varying deliberation expectations among board members. Facilitation, and knowing when to cut things off, must often be artful. Even when a character like Karl Mathiasen’s “Johnny One-Note,” from “All A-board” (NPQ, Fall 2003), annoys us with repetition of his issue, it may be quicker to encourage his interest than to try repeatedly to shut him up. (One method to alter the dynamic of Johnny as the sole champion of the particular issue that he beats to death is to assign other champions, asking him to leave it in their trust to pursue.)
In short, chairing a board takes a sensibility that mixes nurture and dispassion (in fact, being one lone member of a board takes much of the same). So when dialogue starts to misfire, instead of trying to tamp it down or bludgeon it with one of Robert’s Rules, boards need to explore the reasons why and be open about what they think is a healthy depth of deliberation.
Jon Pratt is a contributing editor with the Nonprofit Quarterly and executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.