The budget is the most important policy document that a local government produces.* As such, it has been recognized for decades that local governments should do better at 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 been made and often amount to little more than a chance for citizens to air their grievances at a microphone.
In this paper, we will contend that 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 first should define the problem before attempting to solve it. In that spirit, in this paper we will first re-examine the reasons for public engagement. Knowing why we do public engagement sets us up to understand how to do public engagement.
In this paper, we will also “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 and can adapt to the situation. For that reason, the second part of this paper will set forth principles to help local governments design public engagement in a way that satisfies the purposes of public engagement.
- Publication date: May 2023