Before you start

Preparation is the key to becoming an effective consumer representative. It is crucial to do some preliminary homework before you attend your first meeting.

    Obtain information about the committee

    Make sure you know as much as you can about the committee. Committees may vary in:

    • Scope of their activity
      Some committees are extremely broad in their scope, for example, the National Health and Medical Research Council; while others have a very narrow focus, for example, the Asthma Working Group of the National Health and Medical Research Council.
    • Purpose
      Committees are established for many different purposes, for example, to advise on policy; review a particular program; plan a survey; control pricing; prepare material; or to hear complaints or appeals.
    • Authority
      Committees can have advisory authority only; power to recommend but not to decide; and authority to regulate or control or to set standards. Their area of authority, or jurisdiction, will also vary from national coverage, to the state or territory level, or to local areas.
    • Method of operation
      Committees may have regular and ongoing meetings or exist until a task is completed. Venues for meetings may vary from face-to-face meetings to teleconferences or video conferencing.

    The same person may always chair meetings, or members may rotate this duty. Committees may have formal regulations which are governed by legislation or their operations can be informal or semi-formal.

    Sometimes committee members are required to do work, and sometimes they advise or direct a Secretariat to do their work.

    Even though committee titles are used loosely, they can give you a clue to the scope, purpose, authority and method of their operation.

    All committees rely on meeting procedures to function effectively. These procedures are usually standard but can vary to some degree. You should find out the particular procedures used for your committee.

    You should also find out:

    • the committee's Terms of Reference which may include:
      • the name of the committee
      • the purpose of the committee
      • membership and appointment of the committee
      • the role of members within the committee
      • the duration of meetings
      • functions and delegated authority
      • reporting requirements of the committee
      • the quorum
    • if there is any background material you should read such as reports or reviews produced by the committee
    • past decisions and actions of the committee
    • if there are past agendas and minutes that you can read
    • the re-nomination process for ongoing committees
    • if there is any potential for conflict of interest
    • if you will be required to complete a confidentiality agreement
    • whether proxy or alternative representatives are permitted

    In some cases, your nominating organisation can provide this information. Alternatively contact the Secretariat of the committee or the committee Chair and ask them to provide the answers. Both the committee Chair and the Secretariat will be able to provide assistance to you during the term of committee work.

    Your entitlements as a consumer representative

    Consumer representatives are typically overworked and underpaid. Consumer organisations have lobbied to change this situation.

    Your nominating organisation should have details of your entitlements. If not contact the committee Secretariat to find out their policy on payments and reimbursements before you commence on the committee. Typically consumer representatives are entitled to:

    • Sitting fees
      Controversial entitlements because both government and industry can be unwilling to incur this type of additional expense. Other committee members may be paid for their time through their professional bodies or salaried employment. Consumers, however, frequently forego their paid employment in order to prepare for and attend a committee meeting.
    • Travel costs
      Often includes airfares, accommodation, parking fees and taxis. Most committees will cover these costs but, sometimes seeking reimbursements may take some time.
    • Other costs
      Covers things like childcare, carers for people with disabilities, phone calls, faxes and printing.

    Plan and establish goals

    In conjunction with your nominating organisation, establish any long-term goals you hope to achieve. By doing this, you will actively pursue the consumer agenda.

    Try not to achieve too much too soon. If your committee is not used to having consumers represented, simply broadening the understanding of policy makers is probably an appropriate and realistic goal.

    Long-term goals may also include resolving a difficult issue or problem, developing a new program, or formulating new legislation.

    Remember that lasting change often comes in small incremental steps. Many consumer battles were won over years of patient lobbying and representation. Have a clear, long-term agenda which is realistic. Unrealistic goals will only lead to frustration.

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