Engaging the Public in the Budget Process

Posted on August 19, 2015

Engaging the Public in the Budget Process
Kevin Amirehsani – Balancing Act and Engaged Public
tumblr_no7ycnl5MJ1qlxxvso1_400Budgets aren’t supposed to be complex and scary. Back when I was a kid, my personal budget had just two columns, with my not-so-hefty, not-so-inflation-adjusted allowance on one side, and the cool stuff I wanted to buy on the other (think N64 games, Pokémon cards, and pumpable basketball shoes that would finally allow me to beat my friends on the court through sheer dunking, NBA Jam style). They were also so colorful that I should have been hired to halt Lucky Charms’ decline (sucks for you, General Mills).
In short, those budgets were clear, informative, and, dare I say, fun.
Now enter the not-so-fun budgetary world of local governments, states, special districts, school districts, and other public entities. These organizations have robust mandates to perform all sorts of services with taxpayer money. They have all sorts of reporting requirements which take up sizable amounts of staff time, not to mention costly external auditor time as well. And when citizens feel like something isn’t going right, they receive all sorts of complaints which have the potential to permanently damage the trust that has previously built up between public officials and residents.
One would think, then, that these organizations would certainly have open, sustained, and ultimately engaging budget processes – processes which are built on a foundation of financial transparency, start well before the budget is proposed, and give ample and meaningful opportunities for the community to weigh in with their own budget priorities.
Although there are a number of exceptions by cutting-edge, citizen-friendly public entities around the world, one would largely (and sadly) be wrong.
leslie-knope-quotes-9-640x426There are a host of reasons why, and it’s important to note that not all of the blame lays at the foot of public officials. Yes, staff members are increasingly asked to do more with less, and yes, public budgets are inherently multifaceted (for a drinking game that will inevitably reach its desired conclusion quickly, just open up any public budget pdf and drink whenever you read “special revenue fund”), which makes it harder to compile and condense relevant information to residents. But, in many locales, an evening budget hearing isn’t exactly the most exciting event to look forward to for residents coming home after a long, budget-less day at work.
However, I would argue that many of these issues can best be solved by effective budget-related public engagement that makes budgets clear and informative, and at least tries to make them fun (though for many, that may admittedly be a tall task). For weary-eyed public employees who can’t wait for the end of CAFR and budget season, reaching out to citizens early, emphatically, and through different channels helps build trust. This, in turn, reduces the number of late nights spent compiling pages and pages of angry resident feedback, in addition to the chance of last-minute budget changes (and the accompanying analyses/impact statements) brought on by public pressure.
Moreover, turning intricate budget items spread across a number of different funds into comprehensible language and revealing infographics/visuals can help staff across departments better understand the wider budget and where they fit in. From our experience, a significant number of organizations greatly benefit internally from projects which were initially implemented to serve the public only.
corporate-jargon-2-1-728As for community members, reaching them, keeping their interest, and not losing them due to budget jargon and information overload aren’t the only problems. Accessibility is too. Public budget meetings tend to take place on weekday evenings, and almost always without expedited transportation options or available childcare. For families who work late, who lack an effective means of transport, or who have children, attendance is a lot to ask for. Many of these citizens are those who interact the most with the public sector, and who thus stand to gain the most from having their budget feedback heard and processed.
Successful budget engagement campaigns not only focus on making the budget clear and informative, but also on reaching residents where they are, when they are most ready to give input. This could be as simple as holding meetings in different neighborhoods, but often also means incorporating an online engagement tool into the overall process, complemented by a strong dose of social media.
But Kevin, you implore. We just don’t have the money for these types of initiatives.
tumblr_myi541CAXQ1r7k95zo1_400Well, esteemed, italicized reader, unless you’re Fat Joe, making it rain/throwing money at the problem isn’t guaranteed to solve it. Sometimes, simple and creative approaches work best at soliciting expressive yet structured budget feedback from the community, and they often aren’t expensive. These can range from fun, in-person games to conducting meetings via Google Hangouts, and from text message surveys to deliberative online platforms.
Even though I work at a company called Engaged Public, there’s no magic bullet to engaging the public, particularly on the budget, which is arguably the one local process that affects the widest array of residents. Public entities need to adapt different strategies to the local context. In some towns, face-to-face meetings are very well publicized and attended. In others, Council chambers look a lot like the veggie line at a middle school cafeteria, and alternative methods will be required.
We have found that blending traditional, in-person engagement with online tools works pretty well, but don’t be scared to chart your own budget engagement path, beginning with making the budget more understandable and visual, all the way to incorporating the views of citizens into the budget cycle.

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