While preparing for a December hearing to consider nominations to various Boards and Commissions, Councilmember Grosso noticed something— there were far more men than women under consideration for appointment. We found ourselves wondering if this was a coincidence specific to that day and those specific Boards, or if there was a broader trend of gender imbalance. We reviewed the memberships of all the Boards before the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs (BCRA) and then the 150 plus Boards and Commissions citywide. Our question was answered—there are significant and often egregious gender disparities. 

During our research, another problem presented itself.   Much of the information we were searching for, we could not find.   If information is not publicly available then how can residents know who is on Boards and Commissions and what they are doing?

Gender Disparities

Looking at the broader list of the Boards and Commissions with information available online (more on that below), almost a third of the memberships are dominated by men, including several powerful entities:

  •         Alcohol and Beverage Control Board 6 men, 1 woman
  •         Business Regulatory Reform Task Force – 11 men, 6 women
  •         Commission on African American Affairs – 11 men, 4 women
  •         Housing Production Trust Fund, Board of Directors – 6 men, 3 woman
  •         Interfaith Council – 23 men,2 women
  •         Streetcar Financing Task Force – 13 men, 1 woman

Disappointingly, Boards and Commissions covering topics that are historically associated with gender stereotypes are especially prone to such imbalances: 

  •          Advisory Panel on Special Education – 4 men, 15 women
  •          Board of Industrial Trades – 7 men, 1 woman
  •          Board of Nursing – 0 men, 7 women
  •          Board of Social Work – 0 men, 5 women
  •          Constructing Codes Coordinating Board – 11 men, 0 women

There are, of course, male nurses and female construction workers, but according to these numbers, their perspectives are marginalized.  D.C. prides itself on being forward thinking, but the reflection of sexism in these leadership positions contrasts starkly with our vision of a city that stands for equality.  And this discussion does not begin to consider other measures of diversity. 

Public Access and Information Sharing

What was equally disturbing and frustrating was the amount of information that we simply could not find online.  We were looking for details about the membership of these entities.  We hoped to find a list of names.  Maybe some biographical information.   Figure out when the next Board meeting would be and when the last one was held.  Who attended?  Did anyone take notes?  Did anything happen? 

The District’s Office of Boards and Commissions (DOBC) has a list of the Boards and Commissions, but it does not provide enough information about what they do and who sits on them.   Sometimes, the Board or Commission is housed under a local agency and that agency is responsible for listing the information.  However, it did not matter if we were looking for information at DOBC or the agency’s website because the information often was not there. 

While most of the Boards and Commissions could be found online, at least 30 percent are unavailable. Those that are online provide inconsistent levels of information, some of it woefully outdated.   Some examples of entities that have little or no information online include the following:

As Councilmember Grosso noted in comments before the BCRA Committee, this represents a failure of government transparency and accountability.   Additionally, the lack of information can be construed as a violation of D.C.’s Open Meetings Act (OMA).  OMA mandates that these government affiliated bodies publicly advertise their meeting times and locations, as well as provide meeting minutes.   

So…now what?

These public bodies in D.C. have an important role to play—they are making decisions about the granting of licenses to local business, setting policies and procedures, or giving a voice to our city’s diverse community.  This is why it is vital that their information is open to the public.  Unfortunately, some of the city’s current set of Boards and Commissions do not serve any good purpose or have remained dormant for years.  Mayor Gray called in December 2012 to reform the problem by abolishing 30 of the least functioning of them.   A bill is currently before the Council, but has not yet been brought up for a vote.  Passing such legislation would be a step in the right direction, but it will not solve problems of transparency or gender imbalance.

Reviewing other jurisdictions around the country shows that publicizing information about these public bodies is not hard to do.   Baltimore, San Francisco, Nashville, and Denver—cities of similar size to D.C. but diverse in location and reputation—all have easy to find, centralized lists of Boards and Commissions accompanied by basic information such as membership and meeting times.  What’s more, they include information about how to apply to join these public bodies—encouraging residents to engage with local government is critical to a vibrant and functioning city.  Greater community engagement improves government accountability, and vice versa.  So, what should D.C. do?

In December, Councilmember Grosso called on the Mayor’s Office to make the membership and other key information about Boards and Commissions available and published online by the end of January.  This would require that the DOBC collect this information with the help from individual agencies and then have the Office of the Chief Technology Officer aggregate the information in one centralized location on the DOBC website.  If the Executive branch cannot accomplish this task, Councilmember Grosso is prepared to introduce legislation to make the government operate in a more open and accessible manner.  It would be similar to San Francisco’s law that requires the government to make this information easily accessible online.   These bodies make vital decisions and recommendations, and residents of D.C. should know how to voice their support or air their grievances.   The Boards that grant professional licenses or have a direct say in how government works should be balanced, open, and available to the public. 

Making this information public and easily accessible will also, we hope, encourage more District residents to apply for openings on Boards or Commissions that fit their skill sets, areas of expertise, or interests.  Asking residents to participate in government is how we make the city function through heightened participation.   We want all residents to know what any given Board or Commission does, when it meets, and, most critically, what impact it has on the District.    


*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.