18 January 2006

Robert's Syndrome

Robert's Syndrome

Army General Henry M. Robert left us a mixed legacy in 1876, the year Colorado joined the Union as a state, with his Rules of Order (the 1915 edition is in the public domain and available here). As General Robert explains to his readers, his rules "are based upon the rules and practice of Congress so far as these are adapted to ordinary deliberative assemblies with short sessions and comparatively small quorums." His work was profoundly influential, leaving a deep mark on almost every civic organization established from the time his Rules were published until roughly the late 1960s. Imitators has tweaked his rules a little, but their works suffer the same faults as his own.

The problem with the rules is not that they are poorly crafted. While there are some details one could debate, and indeed, he himself made clear that rather than being a Gospel written in stone that his rules were meant only "until [the organization] sees fit to adopt special rules conflicting with and superseding any of the rules of detail," this is not what is wrong with the rules. The problem is more fundamental.

Legislative bodies, like the English Parliament where the Rules of Congress upon which Robert's Rules were based, are mere organs of a much larger organizational body. They are the cerebral cortex, not even the entire brain, of an organization with a metaphorical brain stem and limbic system to keep it running and respond to sudden threats even while the rest of the brain is otherwise occupied, and with a large and powerful body of bureacrats and soldiers to carry out its whims. The English Parliament which is a ancestor of almost all modern democratic legislative bodies was, it is worth recalling, an afterthought in the scheme of English government. England was a monarchy for centuries and even as late of the 18th century, parliament was not really sovereign, even though it was something more than advisory.

Congress is, if anything, a worse model. It is even more of a deliberative body than the British Parliament. Unlike the British who draw their head of government (if not their head of state), and many of his deputies, from parliament itself, in the American system, every member of Congress is exclusively a legislator, with no responsibilty for implementing the laws that he or she votes upon. An American President's powers are more akin to those of the British monarch during the American Revolution, nipped and tucked back just a little, than they are to England's figure head monarch.

Your average civic organization, in contrast, looks nothing like the vast national governmental legislative bodies upon which its rules are modeled. The members who participate in the debate are not a mere organ of the organization, they are its entire compliment of operatives, or, at least, the most senior and important part of that group. Those participating are not a deliberative body in an organization, they are the organization.

Equally important, the decision being made in these civic groups are far smaller in importance than the decisions made by a legislature. This is not to demean the importance of what goes on in a small organization. But, while it may be worth society's time to have a few hundred people debate at trillion dollar budget, or even to have a few dozen people debate a billion dollar budget in a state legislature, for a week or two, the cost to benefit ratio involved in devoting the dozens of active members of a civil organization with a budget of tens of thousands of dollars for a full day is prohibitive. Colorado's legislature devotes on the order of one legislator hour of floor time per $100,000 of spending. A small civic organization with a hundred members that holds a four hour meeting to debate its $40,000 budget is devoting one member hour per $10 spent. This is a very expensive way to make organizational decisions.

People are aware of this, of course, and work around it. Rather than having an actual four hour meeting, civic organizations typically have a small committee draft a budget, have a perfuncatory presentation of it to the organization as a whole, and approve the budget on a voice vote that rubber stamps the process.

But, some organizations grow so consumed with carrying out formalities, either by reasons of tradition, or outside constraints, that the formalities consume a large share of the organization's resources, that the tedium of the entire affair discourages everyone but parliamentary procedure nerds from participating, and perhaps most importantly, warps the organization's mindset to the point where the ritual of going through the process impairs the organization's ability to keep its eyes on the prize of its members common purpose for existing in the first place. When this happens, the organization has Robert's Syndrome, the social equivalent of parasitic infection. The parliamentary procedure meme hijacks the organization for its own mindless purpose to the point that the organization is crippled, without actually being so pernious that the organization actually dies. It is merely sapped of vitality and purpose.

Just about every civic organization in the United States, from churches to clubs to the Rotarians to student councils and student governments to faculty senates in universities have Robert's syndrome to some greater or less degree, but some of the most advanced cases are observed in political parties. Robert's syndrome is pandemic in American political organizations, Colorado's political parties are no exception, and for whatever reason, the Colorado Democratic Party is more severely afflicted than the Colorado Republican party (consider for example, that it takes Colorado Democrats about twice as long to hold their convention as it does for Republicans).

The Colorado Democratic Party Status Quo

While I've thought about Robert's Syndrome for a long time (and indeed, overhauled the organization of student government in which I was involved at Oberlin College to combat the problem there), the immediate motivation for this post was my experience yesterday evening at yet another mindless meeting of Denver's Democratic Party Central Committee (I may have the name not quite right) at South High School.

It isn't that the meeting was poorly run, indeed, I've seen few parliamentary procedure fests of this type run better. It isn't that there weren't enjoyable aspects of it. I appreciated hearing Diana DeGette (Denver's representative in Congress) give a brief pep talk and allude to a nationwide party strategy for the 2006 election which will be rolled out this spring. I liked brief introductions from the elected officials present, and found a chance of socialize with many of the Democratic party activists in my neighborhood was a positive thing. It was useful to hear a presentation on how to be more welcoming to people with disabilities in the upcoming caucus process and a suggestion in the meeting from Anne McGihon (who runs the firm where I work and is my state representative) managed to make that presentation, not just hot air, but an action step that will materially improve the way the party handles that issue this year by putting the necessary information in the right hands with the right numbers to call if they have questions.

But, it is hard to help wondering if the party is making the best use of its scarce volunteer resources by holding a two hour meeting dominated by an elaborate credentialing process, slavish compliance with proxy rules, a call to order, motions, seconds and numerous voice votes, in order to make a pro forma, undisputed presentation of the minutes from the last meeting, the party's year end financial statement, a reshuffling of the allocation to precincts of delegates to the county assembly in April that follows the caucuses, and some minor changes in procedural rules. It isn't that updating our rules and getting that information out isn't a good thing, but, there is good reason to doubt whether hauling a hundred party leaders into South High School for a meeting at which there was no meaningful debate and no meaningful dissent (and everyone knew in advance that there wouldn't be) was really a good use of the money it took to carry out that event and the time devoted to preparing for it, conducting it and writing it up afterwards. Wouldn't that time and effort have been better spent on efforts to advance party policies, solicit input on proposals where there is still room for debate in legislative bodies and the party is divided internally, and helping to get Democrats elected in the fall?

This meeting, of course, was just the tip of the iceberg. On March 21, about 1% of registered Democrats will spend an evening going through their own little parliamentary song and dance, at which they will elect representatives to attend the county assembly on April 8 and discuss issues in a manner that will never trickle up, at least as part of the formal process, to people able to be influenced by those discussions, and will make proposals (many pre-planted by savy organizations like unions) for inclusion in the party political platform, which will in turn be considered by a platform committee at the county level, which will in turn be considered by a platform committee at the state level (I've served on it before), which will in turn be considered at a state assembly (if they get around to it, they don't always manage it) where it will be approved with little meaningful discussion, which will in turn be ignored by everyone in a position to act upon it. The platform will then lurk in some lonely corner of the state party website (if they get their act together) for a couple of years, after which it will be replaced and retired to the party achieves as a nostalgic indicator of the heart beat of the party in 2006. Of course, this platform effort, will, despite its limited relevance in meeting our party's goals, will involve a profound allocation of the time and treasure of the Democratic party in the state. The real platform of the party in 2006 will be not this one, but the national strategy alluded to by Diana DeGette at yesterday's meeting, devised through negotations of the party's leading elected officials who are in a position to implement it.

Of course, there are some people in the Democratic power who tolerate irrelevant meetings and empty parliamentary procedures well enough to be one of the 0.1% of party members who advance from the caucuses to a county political assembly at which they have a say in nominating candidates for the 2006 election, should they be fortunate enough to be in one of the few districts in the state (such as the 1st State House District in Denver) which has an open seat or a contested caucus brewing. And, the 0.02% or so of Democrats who end up enduring even more meaningless meetings so that they will be able to attend the state party assembly early may spend a moment casting one actually significant vote in the event that there is a contested gubinatorial nomination this year.

In addition to all of this parliamentary blather, which, at least, has some dim connection to nominating candidates to elected office, the party also has "reorganization" meetings periodically, at which it does nothing but deal with its own parliamentary procedures in a manner which adds little or no value to the party in a great expenditure of time and effort.

Now, keep in mind that my criticisms are directed at the party machine itself, and that quite a bit of this process is mandated by state law. Rutt Bridges put a proposal on the state ballot, through his Big Horn Institute, to abolish this process, which failed miserably at the ballot box, in part because it alienated the leaders of the non-elected offical party and in part because it failed to recognize that flawed as it is, the caucus process is an important piece of securing grass roots support for the party. But, this doesn't mean that Robert's Syndrome shouldn't be addressed in the Colorado Democratic Party, so that it can be more effective by using is volunteer resources and the funds donated to the organization more wisely.

Curing Colorado's Democratic Party of Robert's Syndrome

So, what is the solution? The basic concept is to expand the base of people who participating in making the important and contested decisions (i.e. in the case of a political party, its contested nominations) to be as great as possible, while limiting the decisions they are called upon to decide to only those decisions, leaving the minutae to a small number of others, and to restructure as many party positions as possible from having a passive deliberative committee character into being predominantly active officer positions that give key volunteers the authority and responsiblity for taking action in furtherance of the party's goals.

Here is one proposal.

* Internal political party procedures should not be micromanaged by state law. State law should explain how a party can obtain recognition as an entity entitled to nominate candidates (likely through performance at the ballot box or in voter registration), should entitle the party to nominate candidates for office in accordance with the internal processes of the party (which will not be regulated by state law) by a certain deadline, and should set a uniform date for the first step in a general caucus process should a party choose to have one. The rest of the law of Colorado governing the operations of political parties (which resides largely in Title 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes) should be repealed Organizations can only develop good rules to govern themselves if they are free to do so, and do not have Robert's Syndrome imposed upon them by force of state law. Particularly if political candidates are given the alternative of making it onto the ballot via petition rather than via the caucus process as they are now (and the Rutt Bridges proposal easing and simplifying that option was a good part of his proposal) there is no compelling state interest in regulating political parties.

* The party platform should not be established by the rank and file of the party. It should, instead, be established by the party's elected officials. The elected officials are the ones who must sell and implement the platform, and whose re-election depends upon that effort. Without their buy in to the platform, it inevitably becomes meaningless. And, the only way to get them to buy into the platform is to secure the genuine consent of both the party's leadership and the rank and file elected officials who will have to push individual bills. The real platforms of the respective parties were the opening day speeches delivered by the leaders of each political party in each House of the General Assembly, and the State of the State address delivered by the Governor. The party should stop wasting valueable volunteer resources trying to pretend otherwise.

* The nomination process at the local level should be consolidated into a single county assembly on a date established at the state level by law, something that would more easily be accomplished if the state party were entrusted with adopting the rules for those meetings (avoiding time wasted conducting redundant rules committee meetings in each of Colorado's sixty-four counties) and dispatching people to run them procedurally, and the platform process were stripped from the agenda. Individuals would go to a central location in the county on the morning of the appointed day. Every registered Democrat who attended would be permitted to vote in all county assembly matters pertaining candidates in whose jurisdiction they resided, delegates would not be limited in number by precinct, those who chose to show up would get a voice and the check on the risk that one part of a jurisdiction would be overrepresented would be the primary ballot.

They would start in the morning with a plenary session where candidates could be nominated for countywide offices. All uncontested seats in the county would be placed immediately on a consent agenda at the plenary session and approved by a single voice vote, en masse, with each uncontested candidate allowed just a minute or two to make a brief speech accepting their nomination after that vote was completed, focusing the time at the meeting on hearing speeches from candidates for races where there are bona fide contests and voting on those races. If some office was divided by districts, a break out session following the plenary session would be held for those districts in which there were contested races. The whole affair would last, at most, three or four hours, sprinkled in with speechs from VIPs. The county assembly would conclude by noon, and House District organizational meetings would follow in the afternoon of the same day.

* Every two years on the afternoon of the day upon which the county assembly was held, each House District would hold a nominations meeting at which any registered Democrat in the District could attend. At this meeting, first, state representative candidates would be placed on the ballot, then, three or four House District officers (a President or two Co-Presidents in the event of a tie or mutual agreement of those present, a Vice President, and a delegate to the State Party Board with the other House District Officers serving as ex-officio alternates for this delegate) would be elected, and finally, a dozen or so delegates (plus some alternates) to the State Convention would be chosen (with roughly proportional representation from each State Senate and Congressional District in split House Districts), in each case after speeches by candidates for each office.

Nominations for the state representative position would have to be made in advance, and announcements for the meeting would indicate if the race was contested or uncontested. The rules for those meetings would be set at the state level, not because the state party is any wiser, but so that House Districts wouldn't waste their time debating parliamentary procedure. No other business would be conducted at that meeting.

* The party machine outside the nomination process needs to be seriously pruned and reorganized.

Right now, in the Democratic party, the most vital home for party activism in the off season, is in the House District organizations. But, there are also "off season" organizations at the block, precinct, county and state levels. I have a role at the precinct level. But, there are simply too many layers to the onion. Some precincts have an over abundance of volunteer resources, others are moribund. Even party activists get tired of receiving requests from an endless stream of party sub-entities for money, on top of requests from candidates.

The solution, it seems to me, would be to abolish precinct, block captain and county party entities of "off season" operations, and replace them with a very three to four officer executive body in each House District charged with operating the get out the vote, information distribution, and grass roots feedback initiatives of the party, and the state party. Precinct organization would be abolished (neatly coinciding with the reduction of their role in the electoral process as the state moves towards vote centers). People interested in getting more involved in the party would be directed there, and could get involved at any time of year (rather than just on caucus day, once every couple of years), without having to endure organization meeting or parliamentary procedure at all.

The executive body of each House District would have the authority, once elected, to spend House District funds and carry out House Distict business without further involvement from the volunteer base whose time and talent would instead be devoted to advancing party issues and getting party candidates elected.

House district leaders would also be charged with passing on, to the state party and to elected officals, the sentiments expressed informally about political and process issues by party activists involved in House District.

Basically, House Districts would replace the role traditionally served by precincts and county parties in the political process, while providing more flexibility in directing volunteer efforts to where they are needed across a larger geographical area in an overall system with fewer Chiefs and more Indians. Because all House Districts have similar populations, they would not have the wildly different organizational issues faced by the current structures, with large counties and smaller ones have very different needs.

* At the state convention (whose delegates, recall, are selected at a House District biannual organization meeting on the afternoon of the County Assembly), there would be a break out session first by Senate District, and then by Congressional District to handle nominations for Congress, the State Board of Education and the CU Board of Regents (in which delegates would go to their own district), followed by a plenary session at which state candidates would be nominated.

If a Senate District or Congressional District had no contested races, those sessions would be dispensed with and people would go to an informational session or hear speeches in the plenary session room. None of the time at this state convention would be wasted on state party buiness, such as convention rules, election of party officers, and the like, which would be handled by the Board elected by House Districts outside of the nomination process. The state convention proper would be a day long, at most, with ample padding in the form of speeches from party leaders and other VIPs in the plenary session.

The state convention would be the only nomination event in the party at which participation would be more limited than simply all registered Democrats who showed up. Nominations would not be allowed from the floor at either the state convention unless no one had announced an intention to run by a deadline shortly (perhaps a week or two) before the respective events, in order to allow uncontested races to be segregated from contested ones for scheduling purposes. Candidates who can't make up their mind a week or two before the drop dead race are too disorganized to win anyway.

* The state party would pick up the slack of administrative matters currently handled at the county level and not handled by the House Districts in the new organization.

One representative from each House District, elected the same organizational meeting, would represent the party at the state level, which would elect the party chair and supervise the state party organization carrying out tasks like selecting state party officers, approving a budget, and adopting uniform state party rules for conducting both the state convention and the county assembly and House Districts, on its own authority, rather than through the formality of a vote in the plenary session on various party machine issues.

State Party delegates would themselves do most of their work in committees, charged with organizating the state convention and county assemblies (with subcommittees handling rules, credentials and the agenda), with providing liasons to county elections officials, with making sure databases are in place to support candidates and House Districts, with fundraising and budget issues, with recruiting candidates to run for public offices, and so on. The work of the committees would be approved perhaps two meetings a year, which, with fewer than sixty-five attendees, all of whom would be very active and parliamentary procedure inclined individuals as signficant share of which would come from the committees whose business was being discussed, would be more natural forums for real debate about any genuinely disputes policy matters raised by those committees. The committees would be drawn entirely from the list of board members.

* Rather than having permanent vacancy committees for every elected office, vacancy committees would consist, ex officio, of every state convention delegate and alternate and other party officer and elected official residing in that district, and the staet party would conduct the meeting.

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