How do you get citizen buy-in on local government expenditures? Bring them into the budgeting process.
Participatory budgeting (PB), which involves the public in government budget decisions, is one of the most popular ways to engage citizens and secure support for government investments or initiatives.
The concept itself isn’t new — participatory budgeting has been around since the 1980s. But how it’s managed from council to council varies incredibly. These days, some local governments are getting creative in how they manage the PB process, and what the resulting economic decisions are.
Let’s take a look at some of the innovative ways in which cities and counties around the world are gathering input and allocating community-decided funds.
How do cities manage participatory budgeting?
While thousands of local governments practice some form of participatory budgeting, from Glasgow to South Australia, there’s no one-size fits all approach. At a high level, there are three primary techniques: a voting process (often based on locally submitted projects), crowdsourcing input on the overall budget or line items (often via an online tool), and direct contributions from citizens to drive projects forward. In this story we’ll take a look at the first two approaches.
Submissions and voting
A popular way to get community input in the budgeting process is to invite residents to choose between a selection of projects that could receive funds. Often this starts with a submission or pitching period, where people can submit ideas for budget consideration. (This can sometimes resemble hackathons — another way cities are engaging citizens.) The public is then invited to vote on the ideas, and the winner or a selection of finalists receive an allocation of the city’s budget.
While this may be the most common form of PB, there are some interesting spins on the concept:
Including younger residents
By including younger residents in the process, the government not only broadens the community base it’s supporting, it also drives awareness of the role of local government for younger generations.
Integrating maps and visualizations
In addition to letting residents submit and vote on ideas, New York introduced another element: data visualization of the process using maps and graphs. Residents can submit their ideas by dropping pins on a map; they can also check out nearby pitches on a different map, and browse charts categorizing the different options by cost and category.
The visual components keep a large scale program like New York’s manageable, and make it easier for citizens to understand and engage with budget recommendations.
Inviting non-residents to vote
When most cities and counties ask for residents’ input on a budget, they’re looking for just that: residents’ input. But some are opening the aperture a bit, inviting others from the broader community or even visitors to weigh in.
“Voting is open to everyone, but the votes will be weighted depending on where the voter lives. City residents will get three counts, county neighbors will get two, and visitors will get one.”
Details about each potential project were displayed at the Sequim Civic Center; the public then submitted their picks via voting coupons. The resulting votes saw broad participation: of the 951 people who voted on budget options, 539 came from Seqium’s surrounding communities. This inclusivity suggests that the resulting budget allocations — a water refill station and smart bin project — could draw interest beyond the town’s borders.
Crowd-sourcing budget feedback
Sometimes, cities and counties don’t want input on a specific project or set of funds. They want to know what people think about the whole budget plan.
More and more local governments are turning to technology to help educate the public about budget breakdowns — and ask for their feedback.
The best thing about these accessible budget engagement platforms is that they not only allow the public to participate in the municipal financial planning process, they educate people while doing it. (Nothing makes a citizen understand their local tax revenues and city expenditures like asking them to balance the books themselves.)
Tools for Participatory Budgeting
While by no means an exhaustive list, the following are popular products used by cities and counties to bring the community into the PB process:
Balancing Act: As we’ve noted, this interactive budget simulator and feedback tool is growing in popularity among local governments worldwide. The platform allows anyone to visualize and change a city’s income and expenses, while requiring them to keep the overall budget balanced. It’s easy to use and customize and can be leveraged to capture feedback on overall departmental allocations, taxes and fees, and individual line items or initiatives. EngagementHQ: Participatory budgeting is all about engaging with citizens, and this product from Bang the Table provides a suite of features to better manage the process. Conduct polls and surveys to gather feedback on specific initiatives, or open the (virtual) floor to ideas that could shape future budget plans. CitizenLab: CitizenLab is another full-suite community engagement platform with participatory budgeting functionality to help bring the community together in the decision making process. Polco: A full suite survey and polling platform with the added benefit of survey scientists and researchers at the National Resource Center (NRC), Polco offers tools and training on how to build civil discourse online. Polco Live aims to provide an environment for constructive online feedback for budgets and more.
Participatory budgeting can lead to smarter cities in a number of ways:
Inclusivity: Incorporating citizens in the budgeting process creates a more inclusive government experience, especially when efforts are made to specifically bring in underrepresented groups, such as young citizens or people in specific districts. Because a council’s budget affects everyone within its jurisdiction, the more voices that have a say in said budget, the better.
Transparency: Publicizing budget information and sharing responsibility for managing the city’s finances provides transparency in one of the most impactful ways: it shows people how their tax money is being spent. Clear, open and collaborative budgeting helps build trust. Giving the public a turn in the driver’s seat also shares accountability — suddenly the community feels more ownership for initiatives because they played a part in the decision making.
Smarter decision making: Ultimately local governments exist to serve their citizens. The best way to do this effectively is to ask them how they want to be served. Participatory budgeting helps prioritize the projects people want, and cuts out wasteful spending on programs that people don’t.
Involving the community in the local government budget process may seem like opening a can of worms: ask for feedback, and you’ll need to make sure you have a way to intake, assess, and act on it.
But there’s a reason so many governments have embraced or are experimenting with PB: it democratizes one of the most important roles of local government.