A colleague and good friend of mine from the Northeast wrote me recently and said that he had joined his neighborhood association board and (because he is a lawyer, I would guess) was promptly named chair of the governance committee. He said: “The board is friendly although the president isn’t familiar with protocol, so we’re pretty informal at this point but trying to do the right thing. Our bylaws refer to Robert’s Rules. You seem to be very on top of these things and take an optimal, real world approach that I admire—can you recommend a resource or reference so I can become more conversant in practical board meeting/functioning? I don’t think strict formality is needed. But I should know more.”
This email request got me thinking about all of the many neighborhood associations, community associations, block captains, property owners’ associations, and co-ops that exist in this country that are convening, reviewing business, having discussions, debating various issues, and making decisions by a majority vote. I then began to think of all of the places of worship, civic clubs, school PTAs, nonprofit organizations, and other communities and organizations that come together to consider grassroots issues that affect how people live every day, deliberate, and make decisions. This does not even start to consider the volunteer agencies, boards, and commissions appointed by elected officials at the state and local government level who meet every day in this country to do the public’s business.
As much as our society professes to feel alienated from government and that decisions that affect them are out of their control, there is a tradition and practice in this country of self-government that goes back to its beginning and persists to this day. Though much of the political theory that underpinned the thinking and writing of the founders were based in the Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Montesquieu, or Voltaire, the practice of self-governance was developed in the colonies and on the frontier in the Anglican Church vestries (George Washington, before the Revolution, was a member of a church vestry and received valuable experience in local governance in that role) and the Presbyterian church sessions. The Presbyterian form of governance was particularly self-reliant and well-suited to the frontier, far removed from the authorities in colonial capitals along the coast. The experience of these mostly Irish and Scots settlers in governing themselves through the offices of elder and deacon and in so doing taking care of not only church matters, but also the care of the needy in the community and the maintenance of justice and order translated well into the structuring of local and state government after the Revolution.
So how does this relate to us today, and particularly to a regenerative governance that makes our communities better and improves and restores the planet that is our home? I think the answer is that regenerative governance is based on the ability of people to have the ability and the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. Our work, in creating governance structures that are regenerative, is to allow people to participate meaningfully in processes in which they have the fullest amount of decision-making power possible, making those decisions based on current, relevant, and ever-improving data and information. We do this by providing the best available information to people and groups and setting up systems to constantly record, update and improve that data, along with structures that allow individuals and groups to fairly interpret the data and use that knowledge to make decisions in a democratic manner.
Though future blogs will examine the first process, gathering, analyzing, and providing data, this blog entry is about the second process: deliberation and decision-making.
Back to my friend’s question. How should groups conduct their business, and how should they make decisions? The beginning of that answer, I think, lies in the two essential components of due process: (1) notice, and (2) and opportunity to be heard. Certainly, if decisions are to be made by a body that affect the rights of some person or community, those to be affected must be given notice that such a decision or action is being considered. Beyond that, the person who may be affected must be given the opportunity to be heard by the decision-making body so that they have the opportunity to provide their information to that body and attempt to persuade the body to make a decision that takes that person’s testimony or story into account. It is the only way to recognize the worth and importance of every individual human being and the communities where they live.
Beyond due process, business must be conducted, and decisions must be made. Roberts Rules of Order, though seemingly “old-school” and far removed from the community co-op meeting or PTA board is a time-tested and workable tool for orderly meetings and fair decision-making. It is used by more professional associations, fraternal organizations, and local governments than any other authority. In fact, many local government ordinances and organization bylaws specify that Roberts Rules will govern the meetings and decision-making for that organization. It is robust enough to run national legislatures but can also work for a small neighborhood non-profit. It can also be streamlined, and there are many abridged or simplified versions online or for-sale that have been developed for smaller organizations. And there are other similar systems available, such as the American Bar Association’s “The Model Rules of Order” that are similarly structured and provide the same tools for setting agendas, taking minutes, conducting business, hearing from all interested parties, debating motions, and coming to a decision.
Whatever the particular Rules of Order that are adopted by the group, it is vital that everyone knows what the rules are and agrees to follow them. Depending on the community or the organization, this may require training and education of the members so that the participation by everyone involved is meaningful and not ignored, forgotten, or merely pro forma. This is also where an organization like CityCraft does its work. When it works in communities, it assists with setting up the structures for self-governance and self-reliance, but it also gives the members of that community the skills and knowledge to meaningfully participate.
When communities and individuals have the information necessary to make an informed decision, it is fundamental to a regenerative governance system that they also have the means and opportunity to fully participate in that decision-making in a democratic process.
More on the first part of that process, the data, in the next blog.