Public Involvement in Budgeting: Options for Local Officials
Western City, November 2008
There is perhaps no more important public agency activity than budgeting, the process whereby decision-makers allocate scarce resources to fund vital public services and facilities. Budget decisions directly affect the quality of life in a community and the public’s level of satisfaction with decision-makers.
Invariably, the need for services exceeds the available resources. A recent Institute for Local Government survey of local officials in California found that city and county leaders alike perceive fiscal issues as the greatest challenge they currently face.
As a part of their budget deliberations and decision-making, local agencies are increasingly asking residents for ideas and recommendations. Such “participatory budgeting” is most often associated with public engagement that:
- Provides greater transparency and education about the budget and budget process; and
- Integrates residents’ ideas and recommendations into local agencies’ budget decisions.
Why Involve the Public In Budgeting?
There are many good reasons for including the public in discussions about local budgeting. Such involvement can:
- Better inform residents about local agency budgets, including revenues, expenses and challenges;
- Provide important information to policy-makers about the kind of community people want to live in and which services they value;
- Highlight the trade-offs associated with allocating limited resources;
- Generate support for the budget-related ideas and actions that will effectively address local needs; and
- Support transparency of local government decision-making and create a more collaborative and trusted governance over time.
Options for Public Participation
Public participation in local budgeting generally falls within one or more of five types of activities:
- Public outreach and education;
- Public surveys;
- Budget advisory committees;
- Budget workshops; and
- Forums for public/stakeholder deliberation.
Some local agencies ask for residents’ involvement in a particular budget, while others use these activities in every budget cycle. The activities can be used singly but are often more useful in combination. For example, public outreach and education are essential components of most other participation activities.
There is no “best” approach for all communities. However, understanding the range of options may help identify the ones that would best meet an agency’s needs and conditions.
Public Outreach and Education
Public outreach and education are important parts of any effort to involve the community in local budgeting. Delivering clear information through the media and other communication vehicles supports governmental transparency, informs residents about budget-related matters and adds credibility to the budget decision-making process.
Information should highlight what’s important. Bill Statler, treasurer for the City of San Luis Obispo, observes, “The issue isn’t the budget — the issue is what kind of community do we want to be? The budget document is really about what’s most important to do in our community over the next two years and how to link that with the resources that are available.” He adds, “It tells us how to translate the resources we have to transform San Luis Obispo into a place where people want to live, work and play.”
A budget overview often includes sources of revenue, distinctions between restricted and General Fund revenues, spending breakdown by service category, current goals and challenges, highlights of new capital projects, economic forecasts and issues that require decisions and, of course, the budget itself. Information should be easy to understand and nontechnical. Decision points should be explained in the context of the community’s needs and values.
While such education is important and can complement more complete strategies, this information-sharing represents a one-way approach that offers little opportunity for public engagement or ownership in addressing budget-related challenges.
Surveys can provide a relatively easy-to-use snapshot of public opinion and give decision-makers a sense of what a representative sample of the public sees as important and the budget decisions they might support. Surveys may be conducted by telephone and special mailings or online, and many local agencies are adding such survey capacity to their websites. Some surveys are accompanied by educational materials as a part of the overall outreach and communication effort.
Surveys may be stand-alone efforts or combined with other methods of gathering information about public perceptions, perhaps as an initial phase of a larger engagement process. For instance, survey results may be used to develop budget-balancing choices or strategies that community members can discuss later at community workshops and other forums. Generally, the costs of surveys are relatively modest compared to the overall budget and usually understood as an expense of doing public sector business.
However, by themselves such surveys generally offer rudimentary information. Survey methodology and distribution (by phone, mail or online) can affect the validity and usefulness of these data.
While they provide feedback to policy-makers, surveys usually don’t offer any opportunities for participants to become more informed about the budget, consider alternative scenarios, deliberate and consider trade-offs face to face or engage policy-makers directly. Also, participants typically experience little connection between their input and policy-makers’ ultimate decisions.
Budget Advisory Committees
Advisory committees are usually an in-expensive and relatively easy to establish approach for bringing voices from outside government into the budgeting process. Such committees can offer new ideas, feedback on budget plans, a degree of transparency, engagement of important city or neighborhood groups and, at times, a watchdog function.
Often — but not always — the participants are community leaders or stakeholder representatives with specialized skills or interests in finance, business or policy. These volunteers become intimately familiar with the budget’s details and are especially active during the budget development phase.
These advisory committees can take many forms in response to local interests and needs. While they offer a degree of public education and involvement for committee members, this engagement may include relatively few individuals — although these may be residents who represent groups active in the community.
In some but certainly not all cases, advisory committees may be more responsive than proactive in presenting new ideas, and their work may be little known or appreciated outside the local agency. This may mean that others in the community still feel left out of the budget process.
Budget workshops offer both organizational stakeholders and the broader public an opportunity to question, comment on and shape budget goals and development through facilitated public meetings of various sizes and formats.
Budget workshops may take the form of large town hall community forums or targeted meetings involving elected officials, senior staff and selected members of the public. Discussions can range from extended question-and-answer sessions to consideration of different budget preferences and scenarios. Local agency staff often provides background information about the budget.
Following an overview of the budget and the financial situation, small groups typically engage in dialogue to discuss ideas, preferences and priorities. These groups are frequently asked to rank budget scenario preferences or reach agreement on budget recommendations. When the discussions are in depth and the goal is to reach consensus or an agreed-upon set of budget recommendations, the process results in a greater need for sufficient discussion time and effective facilitation that can bring to light and explore different opinions and preferences.
Some agencies choose to have more than one workshop. These are held in multiple neighborhoods or locations or during different phases of budget development, for example, prior to the preliminary budget and again once the budget is proposed.
Such approaches generally result in a greater range of directly engaged voices. They also promote governmental transparency and personal interactions that strengthen relationships between local officials and participants. These types of workshops have the potential to more broadly inform and engage participants and provide both individual and collective input into the budget process. At the same time, the workshop format may not provide optimal time to educate participants or fully consider alternatives.Workshops require staff time, planning and the associated resources needed for outreach, meeting design and logistics, information/materials preparation and facilitation.
Forums for Public/Stakeholder Deliberation
Forums for public/stakeholder deliberation extend the budget workshop concept. They typically add depth and a greater degree of engagement and impact through one or more of the following:
- A longer timeline for public engagement, involving multiple meetings of the same participants or added groups;
- Greater preparation of the participants to help them better understand the budget and process;
- More than one avenue for engagement, such as an online survey, citywide advisory committee and neighborhood forums; and
- Additional deliberation, involving more consideration of visions, values, options and trade-offs, perhaps with the goal of consensus-based recommendations.
Deliberative forums typically involve more in-depth community meetings or a series of forums that inform residents about specific budget challenges, provide opportunities for detailed discussion and result in recommendations that decision-makers will use in the budget process. Such forums have also been used to engage community members in conversations about how to solve structural budget deficits.
These intensive forums usually take place over the course of several weeks or months and offer multiple opportunities for participation from a wide cross section of the community. They frequently involve face-to-face deliberation with residents, and perhaps directly with local officials, that go beyond identifying priorities to focus on specific actions and trade-offs necessary to balance the budget.
Deliberative forums can produce useful recommendations and community support. When a community faces serious budget challenges, this more in-depth engagement can help focus residents’ attention on the problem, generate new ideas and create support for new and necessary budget directions.
These forums require more time and money to pursue and may not be the norm for each budget cycle, although some larger agencies are working to build these more elaborate deliberative practices into each budget cycle. Bear in mind that greater public participation brings more scrutiny of the process by the media and others, requiring good planning and preparation by process coordinators.
Choosing the Right Approach
Local agencies should choose strategically from the options presented here. What methods and processes will provide the opportunities for public input and engagement that will help your agency reach its goals? The following questions may be useful in designing an approach to public involvement that meets the budgeting needs of your community.
- Is the local agency fully committed to seeking public input?
- What time and resources can be devoted to the effort?
- What type of information do staff and officials need from the public to make effective budget decisions?
- What information are you seeking — community values, a vision, ranked preferences or specific ideas that taken together will address your budgeting needs?
- Is it important to gain input from a wide sample of your constituents? Do you need advice from key stakeholders?
- Are you seeking individual opinions or more collective judgment based on informed deliberation?
- How important is it for the broader community to understand and support the public involvement process and the ultimate budget decisions that are made?
- Are you focusing on a one-time process or are you trying to build a culture and capacity for ongoing public involvement on budget and other important issues?
- How will the public’s ideas and recommendations be considered in final budget decision-making?
Experience suggests that linking more than one approach is often helpful. Asking for input on the right approach from both agency staff and community groups early on will help clarify your approach, develop supporters and increase your likelihood for success.
Remember, the purpose of public involvement in budgeting isn’t to hold meetings — it’s to collect and use public knowledge that advances the quality and effectiveness of a local agency’s budgeting process. Often a central issue in choosing the most suitable approach is deciding whether you want to know what individual members of the public think about a budget issue at the moment or to generate collective public ideas and recommendations that are more informed, offer greater direction to policy-makers and are likely to result in public support for the final budget decisions.