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.