The Secret to Making Tough Fiscal Choices: Open Government

When governments make it easy for citizens to know the facts and engage them in the conversation about what needs to be done, reforms can happen.
by | October 6, 2014

Chuck Reed

Former mayor of San Jose, Calif., and board member of the Retirement Security Initiative

Many people continue to be surprised that the voters of San Jose, Calif., a city with twice as many Democrats as Republicans, approved a public-pension-reform ballot measure in June 2012 with a nearly 70 percent yes vote. How is this possible in liberal California, despite stringent objections from public-employee unions?

Two words: open government.

Before the vote, San Jose experienced 10 years of cutting services to balance the budget. Thousands of city jobs were eliminated. Layoffs included police officers and firefighters.

In 2011, the city council adopted a fiscal reform plan that saved San Jose from service-delivery insolvency. The pension-reform ballot measure is just one element of this plan. The resultant savings have allowed San Jose to avoid insolvency and improve services for three straight years.

We've learned an important lesson as a result: Whatever difficult things you need to do -- reforming pensions, outsourcing city work, raising taxes, implementing workplace efficiencies or, more likely, all of the above -- your biggest allies will be your residents and taxpayers if you make it easier for them to engage in the policy process.

Here's how we did it:

Eliminating policy-making by surprise: In California, cities must give the public 72 hours notice before making decisions. But even in this era of social media and 24-hour news cycles, three days is not much time to get engaged -- unless you're part of a special interest group and dialed in to the action before it's posted. To level the playing field, we have adopted 80 sunshine and ethical reforms. The most significant: Documents for council action must be posted on the city website a full 10 days before the council considers an action.

Creating a community-based, full-disclosure budgeting process: When I became mayor, San Jose was in the midst of a decade of budget shortfalls. I set out to engage and educate our residents about the difficult fiscal decisions we needed to make. Each year, we begin five months before the budget vote with a scientific telephone survey of residents. This is a great way to determine community spending (or cutting) priorities.

We meet annually with more than a hundred neighborhood leaders on a Saturday and run an engaging budget-simulation exercise with real-dollar figures to set priorities.

We also hold many public hearings outside of City Hall. We share the usual projections of expenses and revenues, but we also discuss unfunded infrastructure maintenance and unfunded liabilities, such as public-employee pensions and retiree health care.

Opening up the employee collective-bargaining process to public view: In San Jose, employee contracts drive more than half or our general-fund spending. Yet historically those agreements were usually made in secret.

Now, union contracts are subject to the same 10-day posting deadline as other council decisions. Most important: All proposals at the bargaining table must be made public and posted online when they are made. The public can see where negotiations are headed long before we reach the last turn in the road. It's harder to mischaracterize what is happening in negotiations when employees, the media and the public can read proposals and counter-proposals from both sides and make up their own minds.

We still have policy fights in San Jose, of course, but our residents and taxpayers can get engaged early on. When residents and taxpayers know the facts, it's harder for elected officials to ignore problems. Making tough choices becomes possible.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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