If complaints are a fair measure of performance, the North Dakota boards that license 45 professions and occupations have been doing a grade “A” job.
With 44 of 45 boards responding to a survey, we found that boards license 80,502 professionals and over the last fiscal year received only 633 complaints. That is a mere fraction of one percent.
As expected, the boards with the largest constituencies received the most complaints. The State Board of Nursing had 19,751 certified nurses and received 134 complaints. The Board of Education and Practice had 10,000 licensed educators and received 75 complaints .Cosmetology had 8,447 licensees and had 25 complaints.
Thirteen boards received no complaints.
The issue of board performance came to the fore when the U. S. Supreme Court agreed with the Federal Trade Commission that state licensing boards could claim immunity from federal trade laws only if they were strictly supervised by the state.
One point made by the FTC was that most of the licensing boards were dominated by the professionals being licensed, indirectly suggesting that this was questionable arrangement. Fourteen North Dakota boards have no consumer representatives; the remaining boards have nominal representation. Of the 275 members serving on 45 licensing boards, only 58 are consumer representatives.
So what would more consumer representation on boards achieve that is not now being accomplished?
Another question: Would consumers be effective on licensing boards?
In some cases, perhaps. The work of some licensees, such as barbers and cosmetologists, are generally understood by the public at large. However, an ordinary citizen could hardly offer serious input on the specialized professions, such as the boards on optometry, real estate appraising, reflexology or medical imaging
Jim Abbott, executive director of the Board of Accountancy, pointed out that his board had to include representation for a variety of specialized accounting skills. To satisfy the FTC, six consumer members would have to be appointed to place professional accountants in a minority. That would be an interesting Board of Accountancy.
Not only would such a board be too large to function effectively but it would also require an in-house training program for the consumers. That would also be true about most other boards.
So who is watching the conduct of the licensing boards? Among the complainants cited in the survey were consumers, businesses, agencies, other licensees and employers. Apparently, a variety of entities and citizens are watching and reporting on the boards.
When asked to explain the small number of complaints, respondents suggested that the licensing procedure and standards weeded out unprincipled practitioners; some credited regular communications of professional standards to licensees; another suggestion was high consumer satisfaction with the quality of practice by licensees.
Another suggestion that should be added is North Dakotans patience. Most complaints never get to the boards but are resolved between customers and providers, e.g. a complaint about improper plumbing goes to the plumbing business and is resolved peaceably at the local level.
Another possibility is that boards are somewhat removed from the public eye and consumers may not know how to press a complaint. Raising the visibility of boards may be helpful.
The last session of the Legislature authorized an interim study with the goal of minimizing “the risk of its occupational and professional licensing boards being subject to antitrust laws.” So there is very likely to be a remedial proposal in the next session.
In any case, we now have figures to quantify satisfaction with licensing boards and it seems that they function effectively with or without more consumer representation, with or without more state supervision.
Lloyd Omdahl is the former Lt. Governor of the state of North Dakota. He has also been a professor at the University of North Dakota. His column can be found in newspapers all around the state.