The budget is the most important policy document that a local government produces because it outlines resources for a community’s policy priorities. As such, it has been recognized for decades that local governments should do a better job engaging citizens in the budget process. The standard avenue for citizen engagement in the budget process is often limited to a public hearing or two, which typically happens after important decisions have already been made and often amounts to little more than a chance for citizens to air their grievances at a microphone.
New forces have emerged that suggest local governments need to consider public engagement in a new light. Before we examine these forces and their implications, we must recognize that public engagement is the most difficult part of planning and budgeting. To take on a difficult problem, we should first define the problem before attempting to solve it. In that spirit, this special section will first reexamine the reasons for public engagement—because knowing why we do public engagement sets us up to understand how to do public engagement.
We will also strive to “think like a chef and not a cook.” A cook follows a prescribed recipe but runs into problems when the recipe does not fit the situation. A chef, however, has deeper understanding and knowledge that they can adapt to the situation.
In this special four-part feature, we take on the monumental challenge of rethinking current models of public engagement. We’ll examine the “why” behind public engagement to understand how crucial it is, especially in our age of polarization. We’ll also offer insight into how and when to engage the public, especially with cocreation, which can dissolve divides.