Representation in Government Boards and Commissions

Article excerpt

In the Progressive Era of the early 1900s the idea of placing boards and commissions in charge of public-sector activities was conceived by reform-minded Citizens as a way to improve policy making and administration. Although boards and commissions had existed in some form before and after the nation's founding, it was the good-government movement of the turn of the century that established them on the American scene. The feeling was that groups of citizens appointed for fixed terms of office could represent the public interest better than either elected officials (who at the time were seen as too beholden to political machines) or solitary administrators (who could be hired or fired at the pleasure of machine politicians). Along with civil service systems and city manager governments, boards and commissions were viewed as an intelligent way to make the public sector more democratic and competent.

Boards and commissions are no less important today. Plural-headed public bodies currently control transit systems, housing projects, waste disposal facilities, universities, parks, airports, hospitals, and sports stadiums. They also approve paroles in the criminal justice process, as well as regulate the nation's economy, state utilities, and local elections.

Even though appointed boards and commissions have become widely accepted at every level of American government and, for that matter, throughout the world, much is unclear about this form of governance (Corkery and Wettenhall, 1990). It is not easy to find empirical information about the characteristics of boards and commissions, and it is especially difficult to determine exactly who it is they now represent. Although anecdotal evidence alludes to the continued importance of public interest representation (Carver, 1990; Houle, 1989), some studies also indicate that boards and commissions tend to serve particular political, social, economic, and bureaucratic interests (Alexander, 1990; Axelrod, 1992; Gormley, 1983; Henriques, 1986; Horn, 1976; Quirk, 1981; Schneider, 1987; Welborn, 1977).

The purpose of this article is to examine boards and commissions as a form of governance in the public sector. The focus is on boards and commissions (referred to hereafter as boards) composed mostly of members who have been appointed (not elected) to control public organizations. I begin with a brief description of how boards are organized and a review of several theories of board governance. This is followed by the analysis of responses from a national survey of board members who were asked several questions about their representation of interests. The final section considers the implications of the survey findings for the reform of plural-headed organizations.

The Organization of Boards

Government boards are created as part of a statute establishing a public organization (see Table 1 for the types of government agencies headed by boards). A typical enabling statute specifies the method for selecting board members, terms of office, board size, composition, levels of compensation, and general functions. Because there is no model statute for boards, their specific characteristics vary greatly.

Table 1
Types of Appointed Plural-Headed Public Organizations

   Educational institutions include state universities and
colleges, as well as local school boards in most large cities
(smaller communities usually have elected boards); examples
include the Board of Trustees for the University of Arizona,
the South Dakota Board of Regents, and the Chicago Board
of Education.
   Government corporations provide services and finance public and
private projects; examples include the Tennessee Valley Authority,
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, New Jersey Turnpike
Authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Los Angeles
Housing Authority, and Idaho Housing Finance Authority. (Local
library boards and other similar service providers could also be
included here. …