2011 Article, updated February 2018
Mention “meeting procedure” and the almost universal reaction is “Boring!!!” A meeting punctuated by points of order about meeting processes and procedural motions can, indeed, be boring. If the alternative is the frustration experienced in a badly run meeting (where time is wasted and some people get away with irresponsible behaviour) give me a “boring” but properly run meeting any time! The view that meeting procedure is “boring” is misguided, as it ignores the fact that to be run effectively and efficiently meetings do need to follow proper processes.
What is “proper process” for a meeting?
Before that question can be answered, you need to identify what type of meeting you are dealing with. Apart from meetings where decision-making is the predominant purpose and formal meeting procedure should be followed, there are other common types of meeting such as seminars and workshops, discussion groups, Round Robins, panel discussions, and role-plays. Such meeting formats are effective where the objective is to provide information, gather ideas, problem-solve, or seek a consensus. Each of those types of meeting should be properly organised and should follow proper, structured processes. This column is not the place to go into detail, but Chapter 11 of my book Members’ Meetings, 3rd Edition, published by LexisNexis, explains these different types of meeting.
The use of proper “parliamentary procedure” is essential only if the purpose of the meeting (or a particular part of it) is decision-making.
Where the use of formal meeting procedure is appropriate
Most meetings of statutory bodies (such as local authorities and school boards of trustees) and of many other organisations are clearly formal and should be run according to the appropriate, formal rules. In the case of statutory bodies this is usually required by statute, and the underlying assumption in most other organisations’ constitutions (and certainly Court decisions assume this) is that meetings will be properly called and controlled.
Where proper meeting procedure is not followed by a chairperson and others participating, the end result is usually personal frustration, the wasting of much time, and, potentially, chaos.
Consequences of using formal meeting procedure
It can be artificial, restrictive and formalistic to follow the formal rules of parliamentary procedure and debate. However, when applied and used by a confident and experienced chairperson, following the formal rules (controlling who may speak, how often members may speak, and how members conduct themselves during the debate) the result should be:
- Better debate,
- More democratic decision-making,
- More efficient use of time, and
- A smoothly run meeting.
The author has chaired countless meetings, and has yet to hear a complaint that any such meeting was run over-formally (the usual response has been expressions of appreciation (even from those whose behaviour has been the subject of some control from the chair!).
The origins of our meeting procedure rules
Our formal meeting procedure rules are commonly referred to as “Westminster” parliamentary procedure which is derived from the longstanding practices of the British Parliament at Westminster. They have become universally accepted as a result of regular, common usage not just in Parliament but also in all types of formal meeting. A different system of meeting procedure, based on Robert’s Rules of Order, is used in countries such as the USA and South Africa. Confusingly, books based on Robert’s are sold in New Zealand without purchasers being warned that Robert’s Rules of Order are not accepted in New Zealand.
The customary rules and conventions of “Westminster” parliamentary procedure may be modified (in order of precedence) by:
- Any relevant Acts of Parliament (such as the Local Government Act 2002, Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 and Companies Act 1993),
- An organisation’s constitutional rules, to which reference should be made,
- Any adopted standing orders,
- Any procedural motions passed by a meeting, and
- The well-established customs of an organisation.
It is now appropriate and common to recognise cultural practices, for instance by opening and closing a meeting with a karakia (prayer) especially when Māori or Pacific Islanders are involved either as participants or when issues of importance to them are to be discussed.
Local authorities are obliged, under clause 27(1), Schedule 7, Local Government Act 2002, to adopt a set of standing orders, and most adopt the Model Standing Orders for Meetings of Local Authorities and Community Boards, NZS 9202:2003 with or without some modifications. The Standards Association also publishes Model Standing Orders for Meetings of Public Bodies, MP 9204:1993. Few community organisations go to that level of formality, but there is good reason to adopt a defined authority on meeting procedure to deal with problems as and when they arise (naturally, I can recommend Members’ Meetings, 3rd Edition, published by LexisNexis.
Basic meeting procedure principles
As discussed in the another article (“Whose meeting is it anyway?”), the procedural rules need to be understood by all members, not just the chairperson, as everyone is responsible for the proper and efficient conduct of a meeting. Later articles will discuss different meeting procedure issues, but some basic rules can be mentioned here:
- Meetings should start on time (it is grossly discourteous to those who have made the effort to be on time to have them twiddling their thumbs waiting for latecomers),
- Formal parliamentary procedure requires clearly expressed proposals (by formal motions), and clearly explained ideas and opinions (by those speaking to motions during a debate), and these procedures focus the meeting’s attention on exactly what is proposed so that a decision can be reached in a proper and efficient manner, and
- In principle, speakers should not be allowed to speak more than once during formal debate on a motion, and in consequence often dominating the debate (but, as long as the privilege of doing so is not abused, a good chairperson may be able to allow this in the interests of facilitating more informed decision-making).