Why You Should Volunteer On A Public Board Or Commission - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lloyd Lim

Lloyd Lim was a lawyer and administrator in government and the private sector and ran a small business. He is the author of books and articles and was born and raised in Hawaii. Lim has a B.A. from Columbia, a J.D. from UCLA and an MBA from UH Manoa. 

The experience will open up eyes and provide a better foundation for dabbling in public policy issues.

Hawaii’s government needs people with solid private sector experience to serve on public boards or commissions. There are a few things that might deter one from doing this, even apart from the time commitment.

We have seen some public board members given a real hazing by a legislative committees, although this is the rare exception. We can all see the reputational risks of life in the public arena. And typically, the pay is zero.

So why even consider doing public service? This piece will offer a few possible reasons, although there are others:

  • Think big picture, beyond just the interests of the entity you work for.
  • Learn something about government process, including how the legislative and executive branches work together (or don’t), and why some of the seemingly bureaucratic procedures are really there for risk management.
  • Learn to operate in a quasi-political environment where the public and press can take an interest in what you are doing. Become more circumspect. Develop a thicker skin. Learn when to stay above the fray.
  • Sharpen your understanding of conflicts of interest, which are typically less important in business, but critical in government where public moneys are being handled and one must act in the public interest.
  • Learn that you can sometimes influence legislative policy, not just worry about compliance with rules made by others.
  • Meet some interesting people; make some good connections.
  • Stop thinking of government as a faceless institution run by bureaucrats in grey flannel suits. See inside, see the human aspects.
  • Test out your idea that you might want to run for public office or be a cabinet member one day.

For many people, coming from the private sector into the public sector, even on a volunteer part-time basis, can be a rude shock.

Yes, you will have to decide up front not to roll your eyes or let your jaw hang slack when you are in a public meeting. You may now and then think of Alice in Disney’s animated film of “Alice in Wonderland” as she falls into the rabbit hole and waves goodbye to her cat.

But in the end, when you come out the other side, you will see the world with new eyes and have a better foundation for dabbling in public policy issues. On balance, it is a fair trade.

But one thing that you should not expect is gratitude from the public. There is no brass band or gold watch waiting at the end. This is something you do for yourself, not to “give back” as if you were the greatest thing since sliced bread. It takes even more humility to serve in government than in business.

Why? Because the problems faced by the government are often far more intractable than those faced by business. And because more cooks are involved in making the soup.

For my own part, I think there is altogether too much griping coming from the public these days. As Sean Connery says to Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables,” “What are you prepared to do?”

Oh yeah, in that scene Connery was lying in a pool of blood after being riddled with bullets. Maybe next time, I pick a different quote.

But the point remains: There are great benefits from serving on a government board or commission. Click here to view many the state boards and commissions. Each county also similar agencies that can be found online.

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About the Author

Lloyd Lim

Lloyd Lim was a lawyer and administrator in government and the private sector and ran a small business. He is the author of books and articles and was born and raised in Hawaii. Lim has a B.A. from Columbia, a J.D. from UCLA and an MBA from UH Manoa. 

Latest Comments (0)

Unfortunately, you have to be wealthy to serve on any of these boards. If you're not, you have to have 2-3 jobs just to stay afloat anywhere on these islands. Money is what rules.

Scotty_Poppins · 3 months ago

Rather than spend money on unwanted security campuses & massive pay raises for ineffective part time politicians, perhaps some of these board positions might offer some nominal remuneration (not even as much as the pre-raise City Council). There are quite a few highly skilled, retired professionals (private sector, military, Feds) hereabouts whose knowledge & experience should be leveraged. At discounted rates, too: while unconcerned about "big" pay, they would appreciate something to balance out the cost & abuse one earns by "stepping up to serve". (Their twenty year old cars, clothes, and computers won't last the first week; but enough to help defray transport, buy a few new Aloha shirts, and afford lunch in town shows our kupuna some respect, and goes right back into the local economy anyway.)

Kamanulai · 3 months ago

Years back I served in elected, appointed and volunteer positions. Not high level stuffs. If someone asks me about serving now, I'd tell them not to do it unless they want a lot of humbug, unjustified criticism and limited support from higher-up folks. Things nowadays are just too divisive and everything is outrage and politicized. Life's too short. Just my personal POV based on having walked the walk.

CatManapua · 3 months ago

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