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Engaging Citizens in the Economic Squeeze · ICMA PM Magazine · June 2010

June 2010 · Volume 92 · Number 5 · ICMA PM Magazine

Engaging Citizens in the Economic Squeeze

by Evelina Moulder and Ron Carlee
Are we doing enough to connect with the public?

The economic crisis is obviously not just a budget issue for a local government’s administrators. It is a crisis for the entire community. Now, more than ever, it is important for citizens to know that “we are all in this together.” As local governments seek to balance the community’s collective budget, residents are struggling to balance their own budgets. Layoffs, furloughs, failing businesses, declines in property value, foreclosures, and evaporation of retirement funds all put pressure on people living in our communities.

To truly engage citizens, a dialogue must take place. Putting an ad in a newspaper for people to testify at a public hearing in front of the elected officials is not a dialogue; it’s a public hearing likely to be dominated by the usual suspects and certain to result in one-way communication. With dialogue, a sense of relationship is created. This relationship creates community and a sense of shared interests and responsibility.

Engagement Widespread, Narrowly Focused

ICMA’s 2009 “Survey of the Profession” revealed that virtually all local governments offer opportunities for citizen engagement (100 percent of Aaa-rated local governments and 94 percent of others); 80 percent report that the only opportunity is to attend council meetings. The second most prevalent type of opportunity—used by only 9 percent of respondents—is participation on boards and commissions.

Citizen surveys represent an indirect approach to engagement that can yield substantial and representative information. Surveys are now used by a majority of local governments. Localities with Aaa bond ratings show a high level of use at 79 percent, while use by others is at 50 percent. A well-conducted survey can give elected and appointed officials feedback on community satisfaction with local government services.

Public hearings, in contrast, tend to attract mostly people opposing cuts in programs in which they have an interest. Huey Long, city manager of Miami, Oklahoma (population 13,704), reports that this isn’t helpful because people are extremely willing to tell you what not to cut but are less forthcoming in suggesting areas to reduce in order to balance the budget.

Do the dominant, traditional approaches to engage the public truly connect the local government and the governed? Do the traditional approaches represent the views of the population?

Based on overall ICMA survey responses, many communities have found the answers to these questions to be “no.” This is not to suggest that public hearings and commissions are irrelevant but that they are not enough. A number of other techniques have been employed but by relatively few local governments. Only 3 percent of the respondents use town meetings. Only 1 percent of local governments have employed neighborhood meetings, neighborhood action teams, Internet discussion forums, or ad hoc citizen task forces.

Citizens Not Engaged in Fiscal Decisions

Considering the extent of general engagement described above, we were surprised to learn that citizens have largely not been engaged to help deal with the economic downturn: 71 percent of respondents report that they have not involved citizens in decision making related to the fiscal crisis, such as decisions about how to allocate resources. Looking deeper, we found that Aaa-rated communities engaged at a higher rate than others: 47 percent versus 29 percent.

A conversation with managers from large jurisdictions revealed conflicting messages from elected officials. Some managers work for councils that expressly do not want the manager directly engaging with the public and “getting ahead of the council on the budget.” Some councils are control oriented and want to know the answer before they ask the questions in public.

Other councils want the managers to engage with the public and “get beat up so that the councilmembers can be the good guys when they restore the most politically distasteful budget reductions.” Most councilmembers at least want the manager to educate the public about the tough decisions facing the council in order to relieve some of the pressure once the budget is before them.

In a number of group interviews with managers, we found that managers engaging the public in fiscal matters have focused on educating the public about the budget. While the manager may be responsible for making budget recommendations, the manager does not have to campaign for the budget. Some engage the public before they develop their recommendations; engagement helps inform these managers as they cope with difficult choices. Other managers begin the engagement process after releasing their recommendations, focusing more in educating the public about their recommendations so that the public is prepared to testify before the council.

Leading Practices

Several practices are emerging as mechanisms to help managers tap into the ideas of their residents as they face difficult budget recommendations:

  • Focus on helping the public understand the relationships between services and their costs rather than defending the manager’s recommendations.
  • Structure a dialogue so that citizens can develop a deeper understanding of budget realities and the reasons for those realities.
  • Use simulation games to involve citizens in grappling with tough decisions.
  • Use citizen surveys and interviews to get a representative view of citizen values and priorities.
  • Regularly modify the engagement process to keep the approach fresh, to attract the broad range of citizens necessary to be representative, and to deter special interests from gaming the system.
  • Be transparent.

Creating Dialogue, Not Advocacy

A common concern with budget engagement is developing a process that provides meaningful input from a wide range of citizens and avoiding having narrowly focused, special-interest groups hijack the dialogue process. Anthony Griffin, ICMA-CM, county executive of Fairfax County, Virginia (population 1,040,000), reported holding effective community forums before developing his recommendations, that is, until advocacy groups got organized and turned out crowds to promote their causes. This undermined the larger goal of developing a “consensus on a” budget that is balanced financially and balanced among diverse constituencies.

Before releasing his budget recommendations, City Manager Marc Ott of Austin, Texas (population 709,900), held a series of budget forums, with one targeted only to high school students. Ott was struck by the freshness of ideas from the youth. The forum also resulted in extensive media coverage that informed even more of the public about the menu of reductions the manager was considering. Ott reports that his recommendations to council were definitely influenced by what he heard in the forums.

In Arlington County, Virginia (population 210,000), Acting County Manager Barbara Donnellan conducted a public forum that engaged all of her department directors before she developed recommendations. After an overview of the fiscal situation, the audience of citizens broke into small groups for discussions, each led by a department director. Donnellan reports that the dialogue was much richer than what results from most hearings, and the department directors had a chance to hear public concerns beyond their own areas of responsibility.

In Long Beach, California (population 472,500), City Manager Patrick West began the engagement process after releasing his budget. Borrowing an idea from the city of Phoenix, Arizona (population 1,513,000; David Cavazos, city manager) that West heard at a professional conference, he produced a version of the budget recommendations specifically for community review. This document explains in simple terms the fiscal condition of the city and provides a detailed list of all of the proposed reductions.

Cavazos’s recommendations for Phoenix are actually referred to as a trial budget that are reviewed extensively by the public during 15 hearings across the city. The trial budget released in February 2010 included the elimination of more than 1,300 city positions.

Making Budget Decisions Real

Managers also report a conflict in developing a budget that balances the immediate service desires of citizens with the need to invest in the long-term economic sustainability of the community. Thus, much of the citizen engagement work by managers has been oriented to public education so that people can understand the budget realities that the city faces.

Mark Pentz, city manager of Chandler, Arizona (population 240,600), is using an online budget exercise to engage the public in the difficulty of allocating resources. In the exercise, individuals are given budgets of two different revenue amounts that they can spend across five areas of city operations and six areas for capital investment. (For more information, refer to the website at

The exercise was well received by the region’s newspaper, The Arizona Republic, which said in an editorial dated February 6, 2010, that “Chandler is smart to tap the interest [of residents] in an effort to produce a budget that better reflects residents’ wishes.”

Tom Bonfield, ICMA-CM, city manager of Durham, North Carolina (population 226,800), has organized a number of citizen engagement initiatives that have been important during the recession, including a citizen forum where members of the public use blue dots to identify priorities for the city and red dots for services that could be provided by others. The city held budget priority workshops for community organizations and councils, explaining the budget challenges and asking attendees to identify what they could live without.

One of the more extreme examples of devolving services to others is occurring in Colorado Springs, Colorado (population 372,400). Trash cans, for example, have been removed from parks and trails, and residents are asked to take out what they take in. Approximately one-third of the streetlights are being deactivated.

According to City Manager Penelope Culbreth-Graft, ICMA-CM, Colorado Springs is experiencing a convergence of the economic downturn with a population that has a conservative attitude toward government. A service calculator—“Did you use any of these services today”—on the city’s website attempts to show residents the relationship between services that people use, the cost of services, and what residents pay in taxes. (For more information, refer to the website at

Evelina Moulder is director of survey research, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (, and Ron Carlee is executive in residence and director, domestic services, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (

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