Budgeting and Forecasting

Community Engagement: Infusing Public Deliberation into the Budgeting Process

Page from April 2021 issue of  GFR

We are living through an unprecedented impasse in the United States, where participation in the democratic process has recently reached an historic high. At the same time, Americans are also reporting more disillusionment over their role in the democratic process than ever before. Short-term solutions aren’t likely to alter widespread public perceptions about the role of citizen engagement in local and national governance, but we should think of this remarkable time in history as an opportunity to educate and guide the path forward.

This shift we’ve seen in public sentiment is multifaceted—and far from surprising. Traditional strategies for engaging the public in local and national decision-making processes have lacked the critical ingredients needed to demonstrate value and meaning for citizen participants: transparency of process, sufficient background information to form an educated opinion, and a genuine role in decisionmaking. Anyone who has engaged in a public hearing, focus group, or information-gathering session at the local government level has likely left wondering if their input was listened to, valued, or in any way affected the final decision.

Public disillusionment is partly caused by the systems and processes used to engage the public, which means that local governments need to collaborate with their citizens in more innovative ways. In particular, planners and finance officers may be uniquely positioned to create a more inclusive and meaningful democratic process. Whereas a comprehensive plan serves as a community’s guiding roadmap, grounded in residents’ values and priorities, the budget offers an opportunity for government leaders to actualize citizens’ values by monetizing the community’s priorities. If local governments can allow space in the budgeting process, shifting away from economic efficiency and return-on-investment strategies entirely, authentic community engagement has the potential to help align the priorities of the public (as outlined in a comprehensive plan) and the financial roadmap that funds it.