Public Health and the Community
Working with Advisory Committees
- Advisory Committees and the Planning Process
- Advisory Committee Charge
- Committee Logistics
- Selecting Advisory Committee Members
- Recruiting Advisory Committee Members
- Orientation to the Advisory Committee
- Key Resources
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A community health advisory committee can help a community health board (CHB) connect with its community (along with other important advisory groups like Statewide Health Improvement Program leadership, etc.), although they are not required by law. Advisory committees are a formal method for generating public interaction, and are created to advise, consult with, and make recommendations to policymakers. They can also assist the CHB in components of the Local Public Health Assessment and Planning process, like strategic planning and community health assessment. Advisory committees may be ad hoc, short-term, or ongoing; community health advisory committees typically play an ongoing role in a CHB, although each CHB determines the number and frequency of meetings.
- The advisory committee could, for example:
- Discuss ideas and issues that the CHB is not yet ready to formally consider
- On behalf of the CHB, research new or controversial ideas, specific topics, and professional input
- Help build consensus on difficult issues that may cut across several lines of authority (for example, serve on advisory groups of other agencies with responsibilities that overlap public health to help coordinate planning)
- Serve as a coordinating body to ensure special projects fit within the community health improvement plan
- Provide connections between the many boards that often make up a multi-county CHB (e.g., county boards of commissioners, the CHB, individual boards of health, etc.)
The above duties should only be part of a larger commitment on the part of CHBs to systematic, ongoing, and genuine community participation in public health.
There are a number of ways an advisory committee can assist CHBs and staff in assessment and planning:
Review and approve the community health assessment process. A broad-based advisory group can help in choosing indicators of community health status for a community health assessment, which then identifies the problems that may be highlighted (and later addressed in the community health improvement plan). Group members can also advise on weighting indicators, since neither quantitative (e.g., mortality rate, hospital discharges) nor qualitative indicators (e.g., public meeting minutes, client feedback) will present a complete picture of community health needs. In addition, group members can often provide nuanced interpretation of data, based on their unique knowledge of the community.
Connect CHBs with possible data sources. Many data sources are under-utilized because they aren't widely known of, or they were originally designed for specific and/or narrow purposes. Group members can identify new data sources, and make some judgments about their strengths, weaknesses, and potential applicability to the assessment process.
Provide needed perspective on public health problems. If the advisory committee is representative of the community and the CHB's service area, members should be able to provide varied and representative perspectives on the health problems facing their communities. Their input could be considered another (but not the sole) source of community input for the community health assessment. Advisory committee members may have knowledge and experience working with specific populations within the community, which is especially valuable in the planning process.
Review and approve problem statements and goals. The advisory committee can help assure that CHB assessments and plans truly align with health problems defined by the community health assessment. The group can also help prioritize problems and goals once identified; importantly, this involves making judgments about scope, social and economic burden, urgency, and existing and potential interventions. Although involving the group may require additional effort, it can help a CHB avoid a narrow or limited perspective during planning.
Provide program evaluation suggestions and expertise. Group members can help a CHB identify which programs to evaluate, key variables to examine, and groups/individuals to survey, as well as pre-testing surveys and interpreting results.
Provide political support for staff's technical judgment. The advisory committee can complement the technical judgment of staff if group members are informed of and involved in staff technical decisions, and convey support to the CHB. This provides political validation.
Advisory committees consist of community volunteers. Volunteer involvement can be a great asset to an organization, but it requires a thoughtful approach to volunteer selection, recruitment, management, and nurturing.
The advisory committee charge should clearly convey the committee's purpose, including its goals, functions, and roles. Volunteers are more productive when a clearly defined charge guides their work. The charge may consist of a mission statement or simply a goal, or can be more detailed. It should serve to guide the group's progress, keep work moving in a systematic way, and be consistent with the CHB's strategic vision.
Advisory committee size and composition can vary, but should generally represent the community population and area service providers, and have sufficient numbers to represent community diversity; at the same time, the committee should not be so large as to inhibit free discussion. If an advisory committee grows too large, it can involve community members in subcommittees or workgroups, rather than through full advisory committee membership.
It is extremely helpful to build a diverse advisory committee with both county commissioners and board of health members. While elected officials are representatives of the community, they may not be representative of public health constituents. Limiting participation to county commissioners advising other county commissioners is not a way of gathering broad or genuine community input, and is inconsistent with the spirit of the Local Public Health Act. However, having some board of health members serve on the advisory committee can help build support, enhance communication, and achieve understanding within the CHB.
It is also important to clearly separate advisory roles from policy and management/administrative roles. Policy is ultimately the responsibility of boards, and management/administration more appropriately belong to staff. The advisory committee can provide valuable review, comment, and recommendations on these matters but it does not have the authority to make final decisions regarding programming or budgets.
Choosing the right people for the job is critical. Try to balance geographic and workforce representation. Look for characteristics like:
- Represents an important sector, organization, or group
- Has skills to carry out the committee charge
- Is knowledgeable about the community
- Has a broad community perspective (versus a special interest)
- Is committed to improving the health of area residents
- Is a team player
- Is willing and able to commit time, energy, and effort to the committee, and to actively contribute
The health care sector is broad and diverse; consider selecting members from among the many health-related professions regulated by the state. You can also identify candidates via an open appointment process, by listing openings in county mailings (like tax statements, for example). Public announcements can ask for all persons interested in serving on a committee to apply.
Getting programs up and running requires optimism and energy. Given that special task forces and workgroups exist to plan and implement programs, look for members with a positive, "can do" attitude. Consider recruiting members from other existing committees or community groups, which will enhance communication and coordination, and help to build a constituency of advocates. Remember that work not completed by a workgroup will often fall to program staff, so choose volunteers wisely.
As you ask members to participate, make sure you know how you'll invite them, and that you can answer the following questions from potential members:
- What am I being asked to do?
- How much time will it take? How much time am I committing?
- What will my role be? Is it a role I can/want to play?
- What are the benefits to me or my organization?
When preparing an advisory committee member job description, include the time commitment, desired skills, roles, and benefits. Benefits can include personal and professional growth, personal/organizational visibility, resume-building, and community service.
A thoughtful and informative orientation to the advisory committee will be of great benefit new committee members. Be sure to review:
- Mission of community health services
- Public health principles
- Advisory committee charge
- Committee member roles, responsibilities, and time commitment
- Examples of past and present committee activities
- Issues and priorities currently addressed by the local public health department(s) and community partners
- Agency staff members and roles
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