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Local government depends upon citizen boards, commissions, committees, and task forces/ advisory committees to advise the elected body and the administration. Advisory committees serve the crucial role of making recommendations on issues relating to policies impacting the welfare and quality of life in the community. The volunteers serving on these committees provide an integral link between the residents of the community and its government.

The fundamental purposes for utilizing committees in support of county government are to:

  1. Ensure full representation of residents of the community, in its diversity, in government decision-making processes.
  2. Ask residents to help define community standards and norms.
  3. Provide technical expertise in certain areas.
  4. Provide an independent sounding board for issues, ideas, and policy matters.
  5. Make recommendations to the elected bodies and county staff.
  6. Meet requirements of state law.

Elected bodies appoint individuals to advisory committees on a regular basis. Many governing bodies are considering methods to bring differing opinions, backgrounds, and social experiences to citizen advisory committees.

The Importance of Increasing Committee Diversity

Promoting diversity and inclusion should include the practice of recruiting people with different opinions, backgrounds, religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientations, heritage, academic/professional backgrounds, and life experiences into local government. Importantly, a diverse committee brings people with different experiences, skills, perspectives, and insights together to consider and solve problems. Diversity increases innovation, creativity, and strategic thinking because teams of people who come from different backgrounds can draw upon their unique experiences and wider range of knowledge to spark new, innovative ideas and better decision-making.

There have been a number of best practices promoted to advise local governments about diversity, to promote becoming more welcoming communities, and to improve harmony within communities. These are very positive actions that can make our communities better places to live, work, and play. However, as local government administrators, we are often asked to examine our ordinances, processes, and procedures to be certain we are fostering equity and inclusion.

One active way to foster inclusion and bring new voices into your government is to consider changes to the appointment process and policies surrounding citizen advisory committees. Below are some suggestions to increase diversity on your boards and committees.

Actions to Help Achieve Greater Diversity of Citizen Voices on Local Government Advisory Committees

Alter the Appointment Process

  • Conduct a survey of current appointees to ascertain demographic data.
  • Alter the committee application forms to allow applicants to self-identify by gender or as a member of a designated minority group and provide information that will help the appointing authority increase and maintain diversity on committees.
  • Review the make-up of each committee annually before making appointments.

Whether an actual survey of appointees is conducted, or just an anecdotal review, you can create a description of appointees committee by committee and appointees in entirety. Developing new application forms can allow applicants to submit information helpful to the appointing body in increasing diversity on committees. Prior to making an appointment to any advisory committee, the elected body can have knowledge of the known demographic data of current members in addition to access to previous applications of all current committee members.

Build Leadership Capacity within Committees

  • Require each committee to alternate the committee chairs on an annual or semi-annual basis.
  • Require each committee to select a vice-chair on an annual basis.
  • Conduct committee training on procedures, Robert’s Rules of Order, and committee rules of conduct.

Part of increasing the diversity of advisory committees includes developing the leadership capabilities within these committees. If the chair of a committee is always the same individual, that person can, knowingly or unknowingly, come to dominate or unintentionally bias the discussions of the committee. This can lead to diluting the viewpoints and representation of the other members of the committee.

Most county boards in Minnesota alternate the position of chair, and this has been very successful for the operation of Minnesota counties. While everyone who has served as chair has varying strengths, over time the best practices of each person holding the position have carried forward, creating a stronger, better operating board.

This same practice could increase the strength of committees. Members gain appreciation for the role of chair and its function, as well as learning how to work more collaboratively with the other members. Those members also are then better equipped to develop into other leadership or advocacy roles with the community.

Ensuring there is a vice-chair facilitates the transition of leadership. Annual training instills confidence in committee procedures and one’s ability to provide committee leadership and facilitation.

Force Membership Turnover with the Use of Term Limits

If, for example, you have a three-term limit, then reduce term limits for appointees to two three-year terms. If upon meeting the term limit, a person can be reappointed after a waiting period, then eliminate the ability to be reappointed after a waiting period. Forcing turnover on committees will foster the elected body’s ability to appoint more diverse members.

Expand the Membership of Committees

Expanding the number of members on advisory committees can offer immediate and long-term opportunity to appoint people with differing views and backgrounds.

Analyze the Requirement for Specified Criteria for Some Appointees

Some committee bylaws require appointees to be of a specific profession or establish other specific criteria for occupying a seat on the committee. These requirements might limit the ability to find diverse candidates. Perhaps the need for people of certain criteria is obsolete or unimportant when compared to the need for diversity. You can analyze these requirements and make suggestions for change.

Consider Diversity Targets when Making Appointments

While the governing body cannot know everything about potential appointees, when making appointments the board could consider diversity criteria and candidates with a wide variety of skills, experiences, and education. If your committees have a lack of women, or young people, or people of color, then special attention and intentionality could be given to appointing more women, younger people, and people of color. Interested and qualified candidates representing the diversity of the community’s population, as well as those voices that increase the diverse make-up of the specific committee, could be encouraged to be appointed based on targets. For example, aiming to have committee make-ups of 50% women by a certain date would be a reasonable target.

Consider Removing Governing Body Liaisons from Advisory Committees or Establishing Policies for Elected Official Behavior when Acting as a Liaison

There may be reasons to avoid having elected officials on citizen advisory committees or at least reminding the elected official of the role. The purpose of citizen advisory committees is to garner advice and opinions of non-elected officials with an interest or expertise in the policy area. When an elected official is a member of a citizen advisory committee, sometimes others on the committee will look to them for leadership, which can result in diminishing the voices of others.

Conclusion

Hopefully, with the help of the suggestions mentioned in this article, your elected body will alter its recruitment efforts and find new candidate pipelines. Admittedly, some of these changes will require the governing body to be more active in finding appointees.

By increasing diversity of thought in advisory committees, a local government can be more approachable to its residents, more socially and fiscally responsible, and increasingly accessible to a greater number of people, including those seeking employment and county services. Diverse advisory boards can help mitigate challenges to engaging marginalized communities as well. A city or county’s mission and values cannot be fully achieved without the voices of all people being heard.

Headshot of Michael Williams

 

MICHAEL WILLIAMS, PHD, ICMA-CM, is county administrator of Stearns County, Minnesota.

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