Another Government Success Story:
Citizen Volunteers on New Jersey
State Boards and Commissions
A new study by Eagleton Institute of Politics associate director John Weingart examines the role of citizens in state boards and commissions. The project was supported by a grant from the Fund for New Jersey.
The complete report is available here (.pdf format).
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The Fall/Winter 2003 issue the Eagleton Institute of Politics newsletter includes the following summary of the study:
Study Recommends More Attention to State Boards and Commissions
Few people would guess that 5000 New Jersey residents volunteer their time to serve on hundreds of state boards or commissions, or that almost all feel they are making a meaningful contribution to state government. Nor would most New Jerseyans know that a wide variety of departments and agencies rely on these citizen groups for feedback, evaluation of plans and activities, and in some cases approval of proposals before they can take effect.
A new study by Eagleton associate director John Weingart, examines this generally overlooked part of government. Titled Another Government Success Story: Citizen Volunteers on New Jersey State Boards and Commission, the report was prepared with support from the Fund for New Jersey.
Weingart surveyed board members and staff and found much that is admirable and beneficial, as well as significant opportunities for improvement. On the positive side, boards and commissions provide major opportunities for meaningful public participation in government. Though their existence is largely un-heralded, their success offers a model for reducing the distance between the government and the governed.
Members of boards and commissions express over-whelming enthusiasm about their experience. More than 90 percent of those surveyed feel it is an honor to serve on a state board or commission and believe that their group contributes to making state policy better. While about one-sixth say that their board experience has made them feel more negative about state government, slightly more than half say it has made them feel more positive. Fifty-eight percent, for example, agreed that, “Now that I have served on a board or commission, my feelings about the extent to which government tries to do what is right are much more, or somewhat more, positive” compared to 12 percent who said their feelings were now somewhat, or much more, negative.
On the other hand, there is considerable room for improvement. Focusing on the process used by the governor’s office and state senate to nominate and confirm board members, Weingart notes that as many as one-third of the membership slots may be vacant or held by people whose terms have expired. This has the potential to deprive some boards of the quorum they need to operate while also signaling to the public that “the state” may not really value this form of citizen engagement.
Weingart found that several states are far ahead of New Jersey in creating web sites to report on the work of particular boards or to allow people to ask to be considered for appointments. While some aspects of the New Jersey web page have received national praise, state government web sites for Florida, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Utah all have information about boards and commissions that is far more extensive and useful than New Jersey’s.
Among the recommendations in the report is a call for periodic assessments of existing boards and commissions to determine whether all are still needed. This has not been done in New Jersey since 1990, when close to 150 boards were eliminated or consolidated based on recommendations by a Management Review Commission created by Governor Florio.
An appendix to the report includes a list of 435 boards and commissions grouped according to the state agencies with which they work most closely. This may be of particular value to the reader interested in serving on a board or commission. While some people are asked to serve or are appointed as a result of their political service or connections, the study found more than one-third of the members initiated the appointment process themselves, and 27 percent reported their board membership was their first direct experience with government.
If you would like to explore the possibility of serving on a state board or commission, contact the Governor’s Appointments Office, State House, P.O. Box 001, Trenton, NJ 08625 or (609) 777-0251. Unfortunately, the office does not yet have a website.
John Weingart’s personal experience with New Jersey’s boards and commissions includes interacting with many of them as a division director and later assistant commissioner in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In the late 1990s, he also served as executive director of the state board trying to find a location for a disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste. Currently, Weingart is a member and chair of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission.