A new study found that the people who serve on almost 500 boards, commissions, and authorities in New Jersey are not very diverse. Researchers at the Center for American Women and Politics said state officials must be more intentional to expand the diversity of boards and more transparent about their demographics and vacancies. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
State, regional, and local boards and commissions make countless policy decisions impacting the daily lives of New Jersey residents, but their members do not reflect the diversity of the people they serve, according to a new report released by Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
White men, who make up 27% of the population, comprise more than 44% of New Jersey’s state boards and commissions members who responded to the center’s survey on diversity, the report found.
No other demographic comes close to white men, in terms of representation on those boards and commissions. Women hold 33% of seats, although they make up more than half of the population, while men of all demographics hold nearly 67% of seats, survey results show.
Latinos are the most underrepresented on boards and commissions. The fast-growing population makes up 22% of the state but just 6% of appointees, survey results show. Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders account for 11% of the population, but hold 3% of seats, according to the survey results.
The report marked the first official study of the demographics of New Jersey’s state, regional, and local boards, after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law in January 2022 directing the center and Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics to establish a database that included the race and gender identity or expression of the state’s elected and appointed officials, excluding school boards.
The governor holds authority for nearly every appointment across boards, commissions, and authorities. There are about 3,000 seats on nearly 500 boards and commissions, according to the report.
The center acknowledged a full picture of the diversity of the boards remains elusive, with just about 20% response rate to its survey.
Still, their findings underscore the need for the governor and other officials who make appointments to try harder to ensure boards reflect the diversity of the Garden State, researchers said.
“Given that appointed boards and commissions have significant policymaking and regulatory authority and given that this state is among the most diverse in the country, it is alarming to consider the tremendous number of voices, perspectives, and life experiences missing from these governing bodies,” the report reads.
Alex Altman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said he’s “committed to advancing diversity and inclusion to ensure full and equitable representation in positions across the state.”
“Since the outset of the Administration, we have invited prospective appointees to boards and commissions to self-identify in terms of race, sex, and gender,” Altman said in an email.
Hurdles in data collection
The center regularly collects demographic data on female officeholders and candidates around the country.
But for this new report, the center lamented the many labor-intensive difficulties it faced in collecting such a wide breadth of demographic data, with little help from New Jersey officials.
Researchers asked over 2,000 appointees with available contact information between September 2022 and last June via text, email, and phone to complete a survey on their ethnicity, race, and gender.
Only 21% responded to the voluntary surveys, the center said.
The bill lawmakers passed would have required the governor or appointing authority to sign survey requests, in an effort to encourage participation. It also would have required the governor or appointing authorities to provide contact information for all active appointees, with new appointees required to report to the center within 30 days to better track turnover.
But Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill, forcing the Legislature to remove that language before he signed the measure into law.
“Absent direct involvement by state government, the best-case scenario is a database that provides a ‘point in time’ snapshot of representation as of summer 2022,” the report reads.
The lackluster survey response required the center to take other measures to fill in the blanks some other positions. They examined existing datasets from other research and “proxy coding” — collecting data through public statements, news coverage, or direct contact.
That was a challenge too, the report noted. Demographic data typically is self-reported, and gathering such data through proxy coding can lead to misidentification, the center’s researchers wrote.
New Jersey does not have a centralized database of state appointees, or even a list of all active boards and commissions. The center turned to an outdated state directory listing 473 boards, 94 of which are inactive. Center researchers couldn’t find contact information for 156 boards because they did not fall under any department’s purview.
Finding contact information for public officials is “spotty at best,” the center said.
About 16% of officeholders didn’t receive the survey because their contact information couldn’t be determined. And 13% of seats are vacant, so no demographic data was pulled for those, the center added.
“The process of following up with each state department and assembling a full contact list was laborious and time-consuming,” the center wrote, noting it took months to compile one dataset.
More transparency and state involvement needed
To improve next year’s data collection, the center urged the state to collect demographic data on appointment applications or at the time of appointments and keep it in a centralized, secure database.
The data should be made publicly available, transparency others states including Illinois and Connecticut require by law, the center said.
The center also recommended broadening data collection to include age, education, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and parenthood.
New Jersey legislators should act to ensure fuller data collection, the center urged. Fourteen states now are considering “gender balance legislation” intended to increase diversity on state boards. A bill introduced in New Jersey’s Legislature in January 2022 haven’t yet been heard in committees.
To improve transparency, researchers recommended updating the state directory to include every board, its purpose, and its membership. The directory also should indicate whether the board is active or defunct and include contact information for staff in charge of each board and a link to the board’s website, the center said.
The state should publicize board vacancies, as California and Alabama do, both to improve their usefulness and to increase civic engagement and diversity, researchers said.
“The state must take responsibility for ensuring this data is collected, create mechanisms for doing so, and be held accountable for reporting this information on an ongoing basis,” the center said.
This story has been corrected to reflect the center’s findings were based on survey responses and not reflective of all boards and commissions.
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