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What is a Subcommittee?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A subcommittee is a subordinate committee comprised of members who belong to a larger committee. For example, within the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, there are a number of subgroups dedicated to specific issues, such as the Subcommittee on Children and Families. These groups are a critical part of committee organization, as they allow committees to focus on several issues without needing to involve all of the members, and they create more flexibility within the committee structure.

There are two main types of subcommittee: standing, and working. A standing subcommittee is one that is always in existence, covering specific issues that pertain to the committee in general. One special type, the executive subcommittee, can make executive decisions on behalf of the larger group. A working subcommittee is tasked with dealing with a specific and often temporary issue: for example, a city council might establish one to address civilian complaints about the police force.

Members of a subcommittee are usually chosen or elected by other members of the committee, and they are selected on the basis of experience, qualifications, and willingness to serve. The group usually agrees to meet together at set intervals, taking care not to overlap with regular committee meetings, and the members may be tasked with making periodic reports to the general committee on their progress and concerns. Meetings may also be closed to the public for privacy reasons, particularly when open committee meetings cannot be held in closed sessions for legal reasons and committee members want a chance to meet officially without public oversight.

You may not always hear a subcommittee referred to specifically by this name. Words like “commission” and “working group” are sometimes used instead. In these cases, it can be identified by looking at its membership. If the membership of a group is taken from a larger committee, board, or commission and the members have been specifically appointed by the larger organization, they are considered a subcommittee, whether or not they identify themselves as such.

Serving on a subcommittee can require some diplomatic skills. Members must keep the spirit of the larger group in mind, and since they may end up speaking on behalf of other members of the committee, they have to be careful to ensure that their official statements and positions are worded appropriately. In the case of an executive standing subcommittee, members must also consider issues like budgeting, which can become critical when making executive decisions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Aug 02, 2011

@jonrss - I agree with you in principle but I think in practice there can be a lot of unnecessary and redundant subcommittees. I worked for the city government for about 10 years and I saw countless examples of bureaucratic waste. At one point I served on a subcommittee that was tasked with finding the cheapest possible traffic cones. This committee had ten members on it and we met weekly. Frankly, it was a huge waste of everyone's time. They should have just given the job to one person and told them to figure it out. Management by committee often leads to bad management.

By jonrss — On Aug 01, 2011

Subcommittees are a necessary feature of the bureaucratic process. It can seem ridiculous to have so many people dedicated to so many small processes but this is how things get done.

The world is a complicated place and there are lots of issues that have many different facets. It is not enough to simply have a committee about education. You need subcommittees about secondary education, and secondary education in the inner city and on an on and on. It is only when these issues get an intense and specific focus that any real work can get done. Without all these subcommittees a lot of important issues would get overlooked entirely.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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