Step 4: Serve
"The commission serves as a bridge between city offices, the city council, and the community. We also play a supporting role to city staff, allowing them to expand their research and take on new and innovative projects."
– Member, Environmental Advisory Committee
Once you’ve been appointed, it’s time to start getting oriented and building stronger connections with other members, policymakers, and relevant organizations. It’s also a good idea to develop your expertise in the group’s key issues and policies.
We recommend becoming familiar with your group’s bylaws to learn more about its scope and responsibilities.
Meet & deliberate
"Being able to speak about your ideas succinctly is important. It’s important to take in new information, think about it from a public health perspective, and decide what strategic information can help shape decisions. You also need to know how to ask the right questions to get the right information."
– Member, Neighborhood Plan Community Advisory Council
Members are typically appointed for a defined term and expected to attend meetings regularly (including additional subcommittee or ad hoc meetings). Some groups meet weekly, others only once every few months. Larger committees may also elect officers such as a chair, secretary, and treasurer.
Generally, members are not expected to be content experts when they begin their service – most agencies are looking for quick learners who will bring an outside, neutral perspective or represent key constituencies. (An exception is for groups serving a technical advisory role, where members are assumed to be experts in the subject at hand.) Ideally, the agency overseeing the group will provide an orientation and ongoing training opportunities (such as websites or training workshops) to get members up to speed. It may be helpful to identify outside allies who can also provide you with technical information or other ongoing support.
"The council is a place to bring people together from different sides of the city to meet, learn best practices, and create more coordination on issues that affect many people. The food system is very multidisciplinary, but we have been successful in finding common goals – the mix of voices and views is a source of strength."
– Member, Food Policy Council
Provide feedback & research
Though their role and scope vary greatly, in general boards and commissions do not write policies. The most common function they serve is to provide feedback on a given policy proposal. Some may also conduct research and create recommendations on an issue of community concern, which may lead to future policymaking.
Engage & educate
In most communities, the law requires that boards and commissions hold meetings that are accessible and open to the public. Members also are expected to serve as the public face of the advisory group, facilitate outreach, and listen to and incorporate feedback from constituents. Public health advocates can use their connections to community groups, residents, and health organizations to help get these stakeholders involved in the policymaking process.
It’s rare, but some advisory groups may have the power to make policy decisions. Planning commissions, for instance, may conduct hearings to approve zoning changes, and may help develop new planning policies. Rent boards may have the ability to deny or approve tenant appeals.
Pushing the envelope
Many boards and commissions are explicitly charged with bringing diverse perspectives to the table, so they can be an important forum for issues that have been overlooked during the policy process. For example, environmental review policies generally require that proposals for new policies or projects evaluate potential health impacts. But these analyses are generally quite limited and often fail to account for many pressing health concerns. Health advocates can help bring these issues to light. Members should become familiar with the bylaws of their board or commission in order to maximize the group’s impact; it is quite possible that the group has the authority to perform duties it currently does not (for example, submitting written research and reports or formal comments on proposals).