Good public participation practices can help governments be more accountable and responsive to their communities, and can also improve the public’s perception of governmental performance and the value the public receives from their government. Transparency is a core value of governmental budgeting. Developing a transparent budget process will improve the government’s credibility and trust within the community.
Traditionally, public participation meant voting, running for office, being involved in political campaigns, attending public hearings, and keeping informed on important issues of the day by reading government reports or the local newspaper. At an increased level of involvement, the public, acting as individuals and in groups, advocated specific government policies by attending or sponsoring public meetings, lobbying government officials, or bringing media attention to policy issues. Governments have used new forms of public involvement – surveys, focus groups, neighborhood councils, social meda, and Citizen Relationship Management systems, among others – as inputs to decisions about service levels and preferences, community priorities, and organizational performance. While public participation efforts can be extremely valuable, superficial or poorly designed efforts may simply waste valuable staff time and financial resources, and at worst can increase public cynicism if the public perceives that its input has not been taken seriously.
GFOA recommends that governments encourage effective and well implemented public engagement budget processes. This will enable the public to work with their government to help make beneficial budget decisions.
Decide Purpose of Public Engagement
Articulating the purpose for conducting a public participation process is critical because the purpose becomes the foundation for deciding who to involve, how to select them, what activities they will be involved in, what information will be collected, and how the government will use the information. Consequently, determining the purpose should be the first step in designing a participation effort. Governments should not initiate public participation processes without first establishing a tangible purpose or objectives. Purposes may include one or more of the following, and, in addition, individual governments may identify other purposes for involving the public:
- Performance. Improve performance by better understanding what the public wants and expects from its government. Establish performance measures that incorporate the public’s perspective. See GFOA’s best practice on performance measures.
- Service Levels. Adjust service levels more closely to citizens’ preferences in the context of limited resources
- Differentiate. Differentiate among the expectations of a jurisdiction’s various demographic groups in policy and service design.
- Priorities. Understand public priorities in planning, budgeting, and managing services. This is especially true when revenues are not sufficient, new services are required, or in disaster recovery situations.
Encourage People to Engage
The best way to assure a broad perspective is to collect information in a variety of ways and from a variety of sources. Consider the following items to get the public involved in the process.
- Schedule. Start early enoughthat public input meaningfully influences decisions.
- Transparency. Provide information to the public in a format that they can understand. This approach is appropriate at all stages and may include:
- Public notices in community media
- Public hearings
- Public reports, such as Budgets-in-Brief, Popular Annual Financial Reports, or performance reports
- Web sites and Dashboards – GFOA has a best practice on Website Posting of Financial Documents
- Individual or group emails, phone calls, and in-person contact
- Education. Educate the public about different budget options. This can make for more informed decision making. Reach a shared set of facts. Recruit volunteers to attend meetings and educate the public. Use formats that encourage discussion about trade-offs, (such as a “game” format).
- Fairness. Make sure that typically underrepresented groups are included. Recruit a diverse mix of particpants.
- Groups. Create public or neighborhood advisory groups, committees, and informal task forces. These can be ongoing and can be used both to seek information during planning and information gathering, as well as with subsequent phases, including consideration of alternatives, decision making, implementation, evaluation, and reporting. It is important to identify specific groups that will be affected the most by the decisions made.
- Technology. Use technology, such as a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems to manage service relationships as well as to identify public preferences and priorities. It can also be a resource as to certain services that the public may have an interest in.
- Preferences. Identify citizen preferences and satisfaction levels.. Common methods for soliciting information include the following:
- Surveys, either in person or via mail, phone, or Internet
- Focus groups
- Comment (or point of service) cards
- Public meetings, such as public hearings, “Town Hall” meetings, and community vision sessions
- Interactive priority setting tools
Provide the Engagement Medium
Conversations will be more productive if the following concepts are kept in mind.
- Facts. Participants should have a common set of facts to work from. For instance, consider allocating budget dollars by discretionary and non discretionary funds. Focus on the public process with the discretionary dollars (money not set aside for mandatory or fixed costs). Make your information readily accessible, such as through a dedicated web page.
- Conversations. The enviornment needs to be designed to faciliate the conversation. For instance, a school setting may be less formidable than city hall. Smaller group settings may be more amenable than larger groups.
- Enjoyable. Make public particpation an enjoyable experience.
- Trade-Offs. Financial sustainability requires making hard decisions between competing uses of the community’s resources. To truly engage the public in decision-making, they too must make hard choices.
Show Opportunities for Future Engagement
Governments should systematically collect, maintain, monitor, and analyze information gained from public involvement activities, maintain contact information on individuals and groups that wish to be kept informed. Governments should use multiple communication mechanisms to ensure that those involved or interested in the process are notified of opportunities for additional feedback and of decisions made based on the public involvement process. Most importantly, governments should explain how public involvement has made a difference in plans, budgets, and performance, and gather public feedback on how successful the process has been through the public’s eyes. Information derived from public involvement processes provides a critical perspective for making decisions in planning, budgeting, and management. However, such information should be considered along with expert knowledge and judgment (such as the engineering expertise necessary to build a bridge) and objective data (such as economic and demographic information, both of which are also critical to good decision making).