Being the Singular Public

I’m thrilled to be on the NEHA Informatics committee. I wish more committees were as thoughtful about their approach to having public voices on their committees.

When I serve on government committees, I do so voluntarily, unpaid, and I am the only one who could be considered a “member of the public.” When asked by my fellow committee members where I’m from, they don’t mean where I live, but who I represent or which government I work with. I have taken to explaining my background, concluding, “I’m a rare species.”

Increasingly, though, I wonder if I might be an endangered species. Generally, public boards, commissions, and committees are made up of members of the public. They include industry, government representatives (often), and usually have dedicated spots for members of the public. In Washington State, “Boards and commissions are designed to give citizens a voice in their government and provide a means of influencing decisions that shape the quality of life for the residents of our state. Participation on a board or commission is one of the most effective steps citizens can take in becoming an active voice in their government.” They’re voluntary roles, without pay, and maybe (that’s a big maybe) some of their costs (like a hotel room for a two day meeting) are covered. But, increasingly, it seems these boards and committees are professionalized. A citizen member like me is a rarity.

Around one oval table after another, everyone else is paid for their time to be on the committee, either in their role as a vendor, a business representative (different from a lobbyist), a lobbyist, a government staffer, or a member of academia. They’re representing the professional interests of their employer (researchers may be exempt on this, depending on their university). So, at lunch or networking breaks, I’m accustomed to the somewhat insulting questions of “How do you support being here?” and “Who compensates you for your time?” Nobody (except, in theory, my husband). For me, the point is service. I’m volunteering my time to make sure there is a non-industry, non-government voice at the table. Given my background on food safety and open government technology, I’ve doubled down on committees which fit my citizen-expertise wheelhouse.

And while I’m proud and honored to be a part of committees, I realize, if I wasn’t there volunteering my time, there would be no other person sharing perspectives of someone who is a “consumer” or “of the public.” And this, this is a problem.

I can’t tell you how many times, by virtue of just being in the room, that I’ve been able to nudge more transparency, consideration of public needs, more citizen engagement, or results which benefit the public. I’m a voice for making things easier on citizens and thinking from the perspective of their needs. That’s not to say that I’m not collaborative or can’t see things (or advocate for things) from more than the public’s benefit. There’s lots of areas where vendors, businesses, or government and I sync on an issue. I’ve been told that if I hadn’t been there, things would’ve gone differently, not been as balanced or as innovative. While I bring some unusual skills to the table — a background in open government, technology, and consumer experience with food safety — how I am at the table is because I’ve got schedule flexibility, no kids, and just enough economic stability that I can dedicate a couple days a month to serving, even on weekdays.

...How I’m at the table is because I’ve got schedule flexibility, no kids, and just enough economic stability that I can dedicate a couple days a month to serving, even on weekdays.

This is not normal for most Americans. To have flexible time, workday availability, and enough financial stability to not only show up, but swallow the costs of showing up (gas, parking, eating out during the lunch break with committee members, travel), is not a reasonable expectation for most members of the public. Which is why many municipal boards and committees, which are designed to be led by the public, meet on evenings and weekends. Some meet with the help of video conference tools. But in the public health and environmental health areas I roll in, they’re usually held on Monday mornings at 9 AM or on a Tuesday or Wednesday during the heart of the work day.

Even if we were to give government committees a pass on when they’re held, a bigger problem of representation comes into play. I’ve seen local committees where industry can bring an unlimited number of participants for a given committee, stacking the deck on days where an important committee vote comes down. In two King County Washington committee on restaurant inspections and placards, the packed room of restaurant members stripped me (the only member representing consumers) of my First Amendment rights to use social media in a public meeting. King County’s response? Have a risk management lawyer talk to me in dulcet tones. Other committees in public and environmental health just, well, forget to invite the public if a lobbying organization doesn’t actively represent public interests.

It’s the government’s job to set seats at the table for the public and to find representative members of the public or consumer interest.

Which brings me to a question: in order to be heard on boards and commissions, does one have to start an advocacy group? Seems like a massive waste of time, energy, and money, to start an advocacy group just to get government to remember to have a couple seats at the table for the public. It’s the government’s job to set seats at the table for the public and to find representative members of the public or consumer interest. To do so, they don’t need to seek a group like “People for Public Health” for a public health committee. They could reach out to parent associations or online groups (like a geographic-based group of parents which is within the jurisdiction setting up the committee), or a cancer survivor group, or set up an application process which you promote on Facebook “sponsored posts” and through notifying neighborhood councils.

Then, once you’ve got members of the public on your committee or board, hold meetings convenient for the public to both participate as members and attend. People who are getting paid to be there will get paid to be there, regardless of if it is held on a weekend or evening.

While I’m honored and (truly) glad to serve on committees, I’m tired of being a rare voice for the public. If my experience in the last few years is indicative of a trend in government (or at least public and environmental health) committees, voices like mine might become extinct in our public committee processes.

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