There are lots of ways governments try to address complex issues. One of the more popular is to set up boards or commissions. The logic is pretty straightforward: Legislators simply don't have the time to concentrate sufficiently on all the individual issues that require targeted attention. A commission can do that and out of the spotlight of politics. But some of these institutions aren't particularly effective. What's more, they cost money year in and year out. It's kind of like buying a horse to pull a carriage: You have to feed the horse every day, even if he never actually comes into contact with a carriage.
Consider some of the 2008 findings from the legislative auditor in West Virginia. Although many of the state's commissions meet regularly and are useful, the auditor also found that the Boundary Commission had three members, two of whom were people whose terms had expired while the third seat was simply vacant. In any case, the commission hadn't met in three years. Then there was the Governor's Mansion Advisory Committee. It hadn't met in the past three years, either, and no meetings were scheduled. The State Personnel Advisory Council was composed of 11 positions. They were all vacant.
In February 2008, a study authorized by the Maine legislature examined the state's 261 boards and commissions as part of an effort to figure out ways to reduce government costs. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability concluded that some of the entities contributed to state government, but its list of uncovered problems were similar to West Virginia's. There were boards with little or no activity, boards with many seats that have expired terms and boards that appear to have similar areas of focus.
Over in the state of Washington, the governor's staff was checking out the state's 470 boards and commissions to see if there was any potential to save some money by eliminating any that were no longer needed. They found, among other things, a great deal of duplication. Five different commissions were all dealing in some way with pesticide-related issues. "The governor was pretty clear in saying 'Do we really need 470 boards and commissions to help us run state government?'" Robin Arnold-Williams, director of the governor's Executive Policy Office, told us.
Arnold-Williams says it's important to realize that there are lots of indirect costs of commission activities. "We're hoping to help people to understand that it's not the cost of travel, per diem and refreshments. It's the human-capital cost. It's the indirect cost, which is the staff preparation that goes into preparing for the meeting and getting the materials out."
The SAGE Commission in Nevada, which is currently ferreting out waste and inefficiency in that state, has uncovered yet another cost for states that, in the words of Chairman Bruce James, "keep adding, but never subtract." SAGE has noted that while the state's IT office maintains 157 Web sites, with a staff of three full time employees, there are another 160 state-sponsored sites, many of which belong to boards and commissions. These maintain their own staff, for a total of some 160 part-time employees. The Web site situation, says Frank Partlow, executive director of the SAGE Commission, makes it very hard to even contact some of these boards and commissions because there's no central guide to where they are or how to find them.
Even when ineffective commissions don't actually cost money, there's a symbolic expense. When an entity is set up and continues to exist--even if its state of activity approaches zero--it sends a message to everyone and anyone involved in its mission: Government really isn't in the business of solving problems--it's just pretending to do so.
For its part, the state of Washington eliminated 54 commissions by executive order last February, even though there was substantial pushback. The legislature got rid of another 18. It would have eliminated even more, if not for a technical glitch in the bill.
Critics of these actions complain that cutting out commissions also short-changes the opportunity for citizen input. And that's a point the governor's team gave some thought to: whether the traditional commission approach was really the best way to get citizens involved. "We wanted to take the opportunity to think more broadly about how we engage the public in our business," Arnold-Williams says. "In 2009, in the era of technology and social networking sites, we think there's got to be a better way to get broader input into what we do."