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Friday, May 20, 2011

Robert's Rules

HL7, IHE, ASTM and many other deliberative bodies are supposed to be run according to Robert's Rules of Order. This is a collection of rules originally created by Henry M. Robert in the late 19th Century to enable deliberative bodies to be efficiently run.

In fact, these organizations follow Robert's Rules in spirit, rather than to the letter, unless debate becomes unwieldy.  It is at that time that we fall back upon Robert's Rules.  This week I had to fall back upon it twice to get what I felt was needed.  Fortunately there are several online sources I was immediately able to retrieve data from.  I read them more thoroughly after the first meeting where I needed them.  I just downloaded a copy of the Newly Revised edition in Brief as an eBook.  Because knowledge of Robert's Rules helped me, I thought I'd share a bit of what I've learned from it, and compare what is in Robert's Rules to the way we do business today.  Note, this is not at all an objection to the way we do business today.  Advice in Robert's Rules is that the chair should be no more formal than necessary to ensure fair debate.  Our practices in HL7 and IHE are fair, and should a "Point of Order" arise, we fall back upon the rules to the depth necessary to address the issue.

Robert's Rules are rather formal.  For example, in order to be recognized by the chair (to be able to speak), one must stand and address the chair, wait to be acknowledged, and then speak, sitting down when done.  Unless otherwise specified by the body, each person gets no more than 10 minutes, and can only speak twice.

We certainly don't do that.  Often time the discussion just happens as an orderly dialogue between several members, just as if you were in a moderately large group of people talking about a particular topic.  In larger meetings, it is pretty common to raise our hands in order to get an opportunity to speak, and members are recognized in order (as best as we can track it), rather than on alternating sides as suggested by Robert's Rules.  Periodically the presiding chair will let others in the room know the order in which speakers will go next.  In more formal meetings, such as with the Board or the International Council hand raising is replaced by turning your name-card up.  In board meetings, the board members also have microphones which have a button that lights up and activates microphone so that you can identify who is speaking (which is rarely necessary given how well we know each other).  The two speaking opportunity limit is widely ignored, and members rarely speak for 10 minutes.  The usual length of a members point is a minute or two ... but some members have more wind than others (I happen to be one of the latter).  It is customary in many groups to honor the rule that everyone not already recognized speaks before a prior speaker is recognized again.

While a member is speaking, it is not uncommon for another to ask a question, or more formally to request a point of information or clarification, and then ask the question, to which the speaker or other member to whom the question is referred to responds.  The member speaking then resumes.  Under Robert's rules, the question is directed through the chair to the person needing to respond.  In most cases it is simply directed to the right person, usually the speaker, and sometimes a previous speaker or other authority.

When a motion is made, it becomes the topic of discussion.  Depending up the size of the group, and the size of the motion, it may first be written down, but is usually expressed verbally.  The appointed secretary writes down the motion.

Motions in HL7 or IHE are often modified by "friendly amendments", in which the amender suggests new wording that makes the intent more clear.  If the mover agrees, the amendment is adopted, if not, it fails, in which case the speaker may turn the friendly amendment into a formal amendment.  If seconded, an amendment, the discussion moves on to the amendment rather than to the main point.  That can also be amended (usually in the friendly way and very rarely by vote).

Under Robert's Rules, there is no such thing as a friendly amendment.  All amendments are treated the same way.  The members must deal with a "friendly amendment" as with all other amendments. It requires a second, and a vote on the amendment, and then discussion and vote on the new motion begins.

An acknowledged speaker may often "call the question".  This is a privileged move.  Some committees will, if there is agreement, simply move on to the vote.  Others will vote to call the question.  Under Robert's Rules this is a "Move of the previous question".  It requires a second, and since it closes off debate, it requires a 2/3 majority to pass.  Calling the question does not allow for debate as to whether the question being called is ready to end.  If it passes, then voting on the previous question begins without further debate. If it fails, further discussion is still possible.

A point of personal privilege is a request by a member to the chair to address an issue that prevents the body from deliberating appropriately.  These are rare.  The most common way this is done is by requesting the chair or other party to "use the mike", or to repeat something that could not be heard.  The term personal privilege is rarely used.

Occasionally a member will call for a point of order.  This is often a statement, sometimes worded as a request, as to whether appropriate procedure is being followed, and sometimes is used to point out that the discussion has moved away from the main motion.

While a motion to adjourn is almost always in order, it is rarely used as a parliamentary tactic to suspend discussion or vote. Occasionally, the chair will remind us of other pending business that will fit into the two minute time frame that remains before cookies start disappearing.  In today's meeting, a motion to adjourn was made and seconded in jest.  That calls for an immediate vote under Robert's Rules.  We didn't bother -- first, the jest was clear, and second, the two minutes the chair took to clarify when we would next meet, and organize other discussions was clearly part of the wrap up.  Usually, on a motion to adjourn (especially when called for at the scheduled time), we vote with our feet.