Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Incorporating citizen feedback into government budget and finance decisions can often lead to disappointing results, but following these principles can help.
A version of this article was first published by the University of Illinois Government Finance Research Center.
The importance of budget engagement is increasing for all types of public agencies, from major cities to tiny special districts, while at the same time citizens’ expectations for accessible data are rising.
Most of us can go to our bank’s website or app and with a few clicks get all the detailed information we want about our personal finances, including check images. But even the smallest government’s finances are far more complex than that of a typical person, and despite the initiative of budget officers, city managers and others, efforts to meaningfully engage the public on the budget are usually disappointing.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve worked with more than 200 governments around the world on budget engagement and have identified three critical features of successful initiatives. Conveniently, they all begin with the letter C. While not a foolproof recipe, any leader interested in constructive engagement with the public on budget and finance decisions could benefit from applying these principles.
Context: There is an old aphorism in public engagement that says people support that which they understand. The converse is also true – people oppose that which they do not understand. Good budget engagement is at least as much about educating residents about what is included as it is about getting feedback on preferences. If an item is in a public budget, it should be explainable.
Explanations, however, need to be decipherable for them to be of much use. That means, for example, avoiding inscrutable account names and codes that form the language of budget officers. The best way to explain why a budget item is important is to tie it to a goal or outcome that people understand and care about. Most budgets are based on departmental breakdowns and include line items such as “police patrol services” or “facility landscaping and irrigation.” These don’t mean much to the public. A better approach is to show the “why” of an expenditure. Instead of telling how much is proposed for police and fire, tie it to the goal it serves. Locating such expenditures under a simple desired outcome, such as “Safe Neighborhoods” anchors it to something the public supports.
Consequences: Even though budgets are large and complex, there is a relationship between what gets funded and what gets done. There are few, if any, consequence-free cuts, especially over the long term. If the residents of a community are pushing for lower taxes, then they need to also understand that they may only get their wish if they’re willing to drive on streets that aren’t repaired in a timely manner or to have libraries and recreation centers that are shut down when constituents want to use them. On the flip side, if a community favors a rich offering of public services, then the public needs to support the tax rates necessary to pay for them.
The core work of budgeting is making tradeoffs, including both costs and levels of service. Even though there may not be reliable analysis or data for many important decisions, efforts should be made to let residents understand the implications of choices.
Constraints: Budgets are all about constraints. Beyond fiscal limitations – which are, clearly, the most significant budgetary constraint – laws and regulations sometimes include requirements about how funds can be spent or raised. By sharing information about constraints with residents, budget officials can help place them in a budgeter’s shoes, and provide insights into how difficult it can be to make even the most straightforward choices.
Successful budget engagement will, either explicitly or implicitly, frame up one of the fundamental questions of governance: a taxpayer’s willingness to pay taxes. I’ve noticed that many public administrators and elected officials have a dim view of the public’s ability to understand the linkage between what they pay in taxes and the services a government provides. Some older literature supports this disconnect. However, newer research suggests that more holistic outreach that emphasizes the dynamic relationship between revenue and spending helps residents to make the connection. Citizens do not necessarily want something for nothing; but they need those who manage budgets to convey context, present consequences and show constraints on what can and can’t be done.
Budget engagement based on the three Cs can be a lot of work but given the crisis of faith and trust in government, the prevalence of misinformation, and the urgent needs to which government tends, I think it’s well worth it.
Chris Adams is the president of Denver-based public engagement software company Balancing Act and a senior fellow at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs.
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