Step 1: Research & Connect
"There have been other members interested in equity, but nobody else from a public health standpoint. I’ve been able to highlight the role of transportation planning in public health, and focus on vulnerable populations and how to prioritize resources in those areas since they have the greatest needs.
"I find that most people understand and value public health, but not all. There is some tension with some who see public health concerns as a barrier to development, but for the most part people want to work together."
–Member, Neighborhood Plan Community Advisory Council
How can you identify opportunities to join boards or commissions that match your interests? Looking on local government websites or asking around can be a great start. In most communities, local governments are required to post announcements for openings on boards and commissions publicly, in their offices and online. You may also be able to call your local city or county clerk for a listing of all current openings.
People find out about opportunities in many ways. They may see a posted announcement in an agency newsletter. They may hear about the opportunity from a community-based organization that is interested in seeing more diverse members in the group. Or they may be actively recruited by an elected official or an agency staff member.
To get a feel for a board or commission, you may want to attend a public meeting, review past meeting notes, or talk to current and past members and others familiar with the group. Here are some issues to ask about to help gauge whether a particular group would be a good fit and whether you will be able to make a meaningful contribution.
Who are the current members, and what background do they represent?
Are certain types of people over- or underrepresented? Coming from an underrepresented population may be an asset, especially for more competitive boards and commissions. Also, are there any members who bring a health or equity lens to the group? If so, you may want to reach out to them for advice and to hear about their experiences.
What topics has this board or commission typically worked on? Are the topics specific or broad, and are they controversial? What big issues may be coming up?
Answering this might involve browsing past agendas and meeting notes (in most cases, groups are required by law to make these public), searching for news articles, or speaking to people familiar with the group’s work, including staff and current/former members. Speaking with people is especially helpful to gauge whether the group deals with issues that may be contentious or highly politicized.
Who makes decisions about appointments? Is it competitive to get appointed?
Members could be appointed by the mayor, or be approved by the city council or a specific councilmember. These stakeholders are likely to seek candidates who share similar positions as their own, so it is helpful to look into their background and policy priorities when tailoring your application. If you expect that admission will be highly competitive, you may want to seek an endorsement or letter of support from a well-respected organization or individual.
What decision-making power does this group have?
Some groups, like planning commissions, have final rule in some decisions unless there is an appeal to city council. Appointment to these groups tends to be more competitive, since their powers are more expansive. Others serve a strictly advisory role, providing recommendations on proposals but not making formal decisions.
Does this group involve a substantial amount of work? What is the duration of service?
Some boards and commissions may have multiple meetings a month, while others may meet on a quarterly basis. Similarly, term lengths and limits also vary. It is important to try and gauge whether or not you will be able to commit the amount of time needed to be a successful board member or commissioner; keep in mind that some groups also assign participants additional work duties or materials to review outside of regularly scheduled meetings.
How is work done within the meetings? Who/what agency oversees the group, and what is its role?
The tone of the group may be greatly influenced by how meetings are run and the relationship with the agency or government office overseeing the group.
Overall, is this a good opportunity to build awareness of public health in local policymaking?
Although this is difficult to assess with certainty, gathering the information outlined here may give you some sense of whether you’d be able to raise important health considerations during the policymaking process.