How does a group of people manage discussion and come to an agreement on complicated and controversial documents?

This question was faced by Parliament of Great Britain, and over time a set of formal rules to manage discussion were adopted and refined. Versions of these rules have influenced the way that discussions have been managed in formal settings since the sixteenth century. The details of these rules can be extremely complicated, and are often overwhelming.

Students of politics and law in the eighteenth century would have carefully studied the history of parliamentary procedure (see Jefferson's Legal Commonplace Book) as an example. Some manuals describing these processes were published, beginning in the sixteenth-century, and including Jefferson's influential manual published for the use of the United States Senate in 1804. However, the detailed workings of this process were more often transmitted more in the traditions and practices of particular places than by more easy to understand, codified manuals.

General Principles

In all such negotiations, it should be clear and defined:

  • what is under discussion;
  • when it is appropriate to make suggestions on a particular point;
  • when a decision has been taken;
  • and (in most historical processes of this kind) that there should be at least two opportunities to debate any substantive point.

Stages of the Negotiation Process

To facilitate this process, the documents produced by a formal process of negotiation follow a typical cycle.

Stage 1
Stages of the Negotiation Process - Stage 1

Initial proposals will be submitted to the full set of participants for their approval, and in the days before easy copies could be made it was important that documents were read out loud by the secretary to ensure that everyone knew what was being debated.

Stage 2
Stages of the Negotiation Process - Stage 2

If a set of proposals seem promising, they will be sent to a committee for more detailed consideration. This committee will work through the document line by line, deciding which parts of the original text to keep or change. Members of the committee who wish to make changes will have to propose an amendment to the text. Before taking a vote on whether or not to accept or reject an amendment, other members of the committee might suggest changing it in particular ways, again proposing definite language to be used.

This focus on the text and on particular changes ensures that all of the document is considered and keeps discussion from becoming too general. This committee could either be a small group of people, or a ‘committee of the whole’, which includes everyone who is part of the negotiation. At the end of its work, that committee might return a set of suggestions for amendment to the full body, or return a report that is an entirely new text.

Stage 3
Stages of the Negotiation Process - Stage 3

The report of the committee will be returned to the full set of participants again to be considered. Again, in the days before the photocopier, the full text would need to be read out loud. The full body will then work through the document again, considering further changes, or voting on the suggested amendments to the text.

This process might suggest further work to be done by committees — perhaps to tidy the language or make the style consistent, or to do further work on points of detail.

Stage 4
Stages of the Negotiation Process - Stage 4

Once this work has been done, the full set of participants will consider the final revised text a further time. This gives a final opportunity to make changes. If the document is agreed at this point, it is considered final.

How is this process managed?

To assist in all of this process, there will be a chairperson to manage the debate and ensure that the process remains on track and operating according to the rules that have been agreed, and a secretary whose job it will be to keep track of the suggestions that have been made and votes that have taken.

Members may make suggestions to change the rules, to interpret them in particular ways, or to use the rules to alter the way business is being done. These are 'procedural' in nature. The most common of these procedural suggestions is simply that the body should ‘adjourn’ — that is, end its current meeting and return on another day to continue its work. However, these proposals (or 'motions') may be more controversial — they might suggest that a particular vote has been improper, or that some other rule has been broken. The formality of this process might seem surprising, but it is important that the time when valid decisions can be taken is clearly marked out; this is why members of a negotiation take them very seriously.

Accurate record-keeping is an important part of this process. The Documents drafted through this process, then, provide all members of a negotiation with a chance to carefully review the text under discussion. It also provides a way of managing complicated or competing proposals for changes in the text. Without the formality of this process, it would be difficult to ensure that the entire document had been carefully considered, or that opportunity for changes to be suggested had been given. Without this process, it would be harder to keep track of exactly what had been agreed and what had not.

What about bicameralism?

In an institution like the United States Congress or Parliament, a piece of legislation will be considered in the way outlined above by two separate groups — the House of Representatives and the Senate (in America) or the House of Commons and the House of Lords (in the UK). A piece of legislation can only become law if the same text is agreed by both groups, and some extra work will need to be done to help co-ordinate their work.

What can I do with Quill?

The Quill Platform enables users to explore and better understand this process by observing

  • the recreation of the context of particular debates
  • the current state of documents that they were debating, and whether any amendments had been proposed
  • the detail of committee sessions, showing both the evolution of documents and the arguments about procedure