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Digital Public Engagement: City of Salinas $500 Budget Challenge

Case Story

Community: City of Salinas, Monterey County

Population: 155,662 (2013)


In 2013 the City of Salinas faced a challenging fiscal situation familiar to many jurisdictions. They had to address a General Fund structural deficit of $5 million in FY 2014-15, which would grow to over $12.7 million by 2019-20. The strategic approach they took to allocating their limited resources was Priority Based Budgeting with a robust public engagement component. By linking public input in a completely new and unique way to the city’s budget process residents were in a position of influence they had never experienced before.

More than 800 submissions of the mail survey were received (which came via postal mail and online). For the online challenge, 411 people read the email inviting them to participate in the $500 budget challenge. 297 people clicked on topics on the interactive Open Town Hall web pages; and 84 budgets were submitted. City officials were not surprised to find that top five results were directly related to safety.

Program Highlights

  • To measure progress, the city set three key performance indicators (KPIs). They were: (1) Survey submissions; (2) Town hall participation; (3) New contacts. Before choosing the specific methods they would use, or whether they would be traditional or digital, they knew they wanted to get survey submissions and town hall participation in order to find out what people were thinking. The city was also clear they wanted to increase the number of contacts they had so they could draw more people into civic engagement efforts in the future.
  • The city started with a traditional mail survey (in both English and Spanish) that residents could return or go online to fill out.
  • The city also held traditional live town halls in different districts around the city and spread the word through press releases, sent email blasts, and included an invitation in the survey brochure that was mailed out.
  • An online option using Open Town Hall was also available where residents were invited to take the “Salinas Budget Challenge.” They could tell the city how they would like to see $500 spent by allocating it among five different priorities through a 5-minute or a 15-minute Budget Challenge.
  • The city was the recipient of a Davenport Institute Public Engagement grant. These funds ($10,000) helped fund consulting assistance from the Center for Priority Based Budgeting and Peak Democracy (provider of the Open Town Hall). This support had a significant impact on the successful execution of the project.

Lessons Learned

  • The Open Town Hall vendor “owns” the email addresses of users meaning they city does not have access to them. They are therefore looking at other options for future similar engagement activities.
  • Maintaining focus on civic engagement requires steady investment of staff/consultant time.
  • Making use of Constituency Relationship Management (CRM) data collected (creating a database of information related to community members who have shown interested in being involved and want to hear from the city) also requires time.

Rest of the Story

As indicted above, the City of Salinas embarked on a robust public engagement in that included the following factors: 

Outreach Methods

The effort began with a mail survey, which was part of a brochure that explained the budget priorities the city faced. It was important to leaders that they reach people who might not come to a live town hall as well as those who might not want to, or be able to, participate online. The mail survey was in English and Spanish — Salinas is about 75% Hispanic.  Over 800 residents responded.

Next the city held traditional live town halls. In an effort to make the events easily accessible to residents they were held in different districts around the city. To draw as many people as possible, the city executed a multi-pronged communications plan (detailed below).

For people who did not want to or could not go to a live town hall, there was an online version. The city utilized an outside vendor, Peak Democracy and used web software called Open Town Hall where people were invited to take the Salinas Budget Challenge. In the challenge the resident tells the city how they would spend $500 by allocating it among five different priorities. They could take the 5-minute or the 15-minute Budget Challenge.

The Budget Challenge involved a bit of what’s called gamification — making it game-like.

By clicking on one of the priorities, the participant got more information, and a field in which they could enter the amount of money they would allocate to that priority.

Communications Campaign

The city created a multi-channel communications campaign that focused on an interconnected system of traditional and new media channels: direct mail, public relations, email, social media and their website. The different forms of media were designed to reach people where they are at.

Another goal was to have the various channels be mutually reinforcing. For example the effort received good coverage in the local media, and the city then leveraged that coverage in their social media campaign.

The city used Constant Contact email software to send out email blasts in a more attractive form than they had before. In addition to send the emails to local residents who had expressed interest in civic engagement they also leveraged relationships with local community based organizations, faith groups, and others, asking them to share the information with their lists.

The city’s website was their overall hub. They are now utilizing a Constituent Relationship Management database, or CRM. Information about people’s interests and city interactions with them, go into this database in an effort to build closer relationships with residents, connect them with more of what they are interested in and encourage them to be more engaged.


The city was pleased with the results. There were more than 800 submissions of the mail survey, which came via postal mail or via an online version.

Open Town Hall would create reports for the city and provide ‘open rates.’ The open rate for Salinas’ first email was 44% well above the average open rate of 25% reported by their vendor.

The city was also pleased with the significant increase in the social media following. Between February 17 and March 24 of 2014, the city’s Facebook fans increased by 46%. Between the same dates, Twitter followers increased by 54%.

The City of Salinas achieved their goal of expanding the community outreach and engaging the public in a way that would maximize the effort. The data received was incorporated into the decision-making process in a way that had a direct influence and helped the city better align their resources on what mattered most.

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