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Why Do You Need A Constitution?
Why do you need a Constitution...?
We are living in a civilised country, in a well-educated, peace-loving community – or are we?
We all know that complex factors like misunderstanding, vested interests, power play, politics, ignorance and partisanship (amongst others) play an important role in dividing societies along its fault-lines. Yet, most sound-minded people readily express their wish for co-operation when certain common goals must be achieved. How can one achieve co-operation in such a society?
Enters the concept of a constitution. A constitution is a documented agreement between a group of people on WHY and HOW they will co-operate, and WHAT WILL HAPPEN when the co-operation is jeopardised. Newcomers to the group are then free to study the constitution, decide whether they want to abide thereby and decide accordingly whether they’ll join the grouping or not. Current members, if becoming dissatisfied with some of the precepts of the constitution, can either try to change the constitution in an orderly way, or resign from the group. Elegant. Workable. Effective - If adhered to in the spirit of goodwill. But the utility of a constitution is many times compromised, by ignorance or maliciously, to the detriment of the collective. This article will, by means of a number of hypothetical case studies demonstrate the importance of some aspects of a constitution.
Case study 1: Membership and quorums
A community based organisation does not have properly circumscribed membership rules and therefore attendance at meetings or proof of residence and identity is considered sufficient for membership. For this reason the concept of a quorum, that is meant to ensure sufficient representativity, is senseless. Meetings are then easily manipulated by ‘loading’ the meeting with supporters of any specific item for voting purposes. It also affords the opportunity to bus in supporters in times of elections to force a desired election result.
For reasons as the above a good constitution will make provision for clear membership requirements, a membership application and registration process and membership records administration.
Case study 2: Decision making
An organisation, wishing to express the views of its members in a democratic way, does not utilize proper voting methodologies at meetings, but allows either one person or a power-elite to make the decisions and only inform the members of the decision. No discussion is allowed. This is power abuse and does not adhere to the principle of democracy.
A good constitution should therefore be clear about decision making by indicating representativity requirements in terms of quorums, voting procedures and demarcating the scope of decision making allowed to the chairman or other management structures, in order to limit power abuse.
Case study 3: Tasks of officials
The management committee of an organisation shows little progress towards the goals of the organisation and is prone to conflict due to poor minute taking discipline. Management committee members do not know what they should do, and by what date, and their reluctance to perform is not followed up. Minutes are distributed at the last possible moment and members are not afforded proper opportunity to review and correct the minutes. So the recording of history is manipulated.
A good constitution should delineate the tasks of the management committee members in measurable terms. All tasks should be designed to further the goals of the organisation in one way or another. The tasks of the secretary is of special importance and should be strictly adhered to, to ensure administrative fairness.
Case study 4: Meeting procedure
A committee is chaired by a chairwoman with an autocratic management style and a biased opinion. She has interests to defend and feels threatened when someone opposes her. She gives preference to some speakers and tend to oppose the views of others, whatever their views. She’ll only allow decision making when she knows the balance of votes will be in her favour, e.g. she’ll subtly allow the meeting to be loaded with people supporting her view, but not the other way around. She does not enforce fair minute-taking and management practices, and allows inaccuracies where it suits her purposes.
Generally accepted meeting procedures are normally prescribed in a good constitution, but it has very little use if a chairman is unfair or not properly versed in fair meeting procedures.
Case study 5: Disciplinary matters
The constitution of an organisation stipulates that a management member may be expelled by a 50%+ vote of the total membership body. A dispute arises between two members in the small management committee and voting takes place within the management committee after the two members were asked to recuse themselves. The remaining group all votes in favour of expelling one of the management members and does not allow proper recourse, leading to a grievous situation.
Procedures for disciplinary action as well as grievance procedures should be clearly stated in a constitution since disputes invariably arise. If this is not the case there will always be a feeling of a sense of injustice – especially if there is no appeal or recourse mechanism available.
Case study 6: Appeals
A higher management body is requested to sit in appeal of a certain matter. After hearing the matter the meeting decide that a decision cannot be taken and that the matter should be further researched and debated. Yet, after the meeting the chair confers with a few members and they decide to change the decision of the meeting unilaterally, declining the appeal.
Not only should a good constitution deal with the constitution of the appeal committee, the process of appeal, but also the principles on which appeals are judged (E.g. a description of offences/transgressions and also of possible penalties or remedies)
A constitution should be as accurate and complete as possible, but however good, a constitution is never waterproof. For that reason goodwill and good relationships between organisation members remain vital.