Management & Labor

O Citizen, Where Art Thou?

Bev Stein remembers with dismay the public budget hearing that marked her debut as the chief elected executive in Multnomah County, Oregon. Although it happened...
by | March 31, 2009
 

Bev Stein remembers with dismay the public budget hearing that marked her debut as the chief elected executive in Multnomah County, Oregon. Although it happened more than a decade ago, she recounts it as though it were yesterday.

The county had braced for the onslaught of active and concerned citizens that it expected for the hearing by booking a room capable of holding 250 people. For her part, Stein says, she had "carefully prepared a proposed budget to address our key goals: reducing child poverty, reducing crime and increasing school success." She was looking forward to a lively give-and-take with the county board of commissioners and residents about what they thought the county ought to be focusing on as spending priorities.

What Stein didn't expect was the forlorn reality that unfolded as she entered the large hall. Just four people had shown up, all of them sitting in the front row in an ocean of metal folding chairs. If that didn't exactly represent an overwhelming turnout, at least the concern expressed by the foursome was consistent. "Here we had this billion-dollar budget to discuss and they all came to complain about coyotes in their backyards," says Stein.

Stein's experience with citizen budgeting participation is hardly exceptional. There is probably no area in the public sector where the amount of ink and energy devoted to a subject is so much at odds with reality. The subject of citizen involvement in budgeting has for generations occupied officeholders, activists and academics, many of whom have preached how essential it is to the credibility and viability of public-sector budgeting, and how important it is to instilling confidence in government overall. Many now argue that the imperative is greater than ever, given the miserable budget times sweeping states and localities. "Needs always exceed available resources," says Wanda Page, a deputy city manager in Durham, North Carolina. It's important, she says, that citizens not only understand that but be part of the discussion of what to do about it.

Since 1997, the city of Durham has been engaging in regular efforts at bringing citizens into the budgeting process through everything from customer-satisfaction surveys to small-scale community/city council meetings.

But if Durham residents are relatively tuned in to municipal budget writing, they are the exception to the rule. In reality, citizen involvement in shaping budgets remains episodic, sporadic and idiosyncratic -- even as the number of tools for engaging the public grows. There are public hearings, surveys, focus groups, neighborhood coffee klatches and Web-based budget-simulation exercises. And yet, the practice of encouraging citizen input in budgeting has failed to catch on in any widespread or systemic way.

After years of studying this topic, and writing numerous academic papers about it, political science professor Aimee Franklin says, "I realized that it's hit and miss, and that it seldom gets institutionalized. A lot of the time, you're just recycling the same old actors from the citizen-participation models of the 1960s; neighborhood-level activists who get involved but have their own agenda."

Franklin, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma's public affairs graduate school, says that often those citizens who are willing to give the time and effort involved in really understanding the nuts and bolts of their government's budget tend to be people who are already active and serving on some public board or commission or other civic organization.

This is not to say that there aren't governments out there that have made a creditable push at including citizens in budgeting. Bev Stein says her experience with the small cadre of coyote-fearing neighbors led her to mount her own crusade for a better way to involve citizens in Multnomah County's budget-building process.

The community meetings that Stein organized were intended to "find out what citizens wanted out of government at the front end" before a budget had been drafted, she says. In order to maintain public interest, and to prove that the meetings mattered, Stein would "report back to the community, in language that people could understand," how their comments and involvement had helped shape specific budget decisions and initiatives in the final document.

The simple concept of soliciting input before budgets are written would seem to be absolutely essential to the credibility of efforts to engage citizens, and yet that's what governments seem the least adept at doing.

An academic analysis of the budgeting practices of more than 100 cities in the Midwest revealed that 70 percent used a "regular budget hearing" (defined as one that is not devoted exclusively to the budget) to solicit comments from the public. "Special budget hearings" (defined as those that are devoted exclusively to the budget) were the next most commonly used mechanism for engaging citizens. The fundamental problem in both cases, the analysis points out, is that such hearings are invariably held after a budget has been substantially put together.

According to Stein, who is now a consultant to governments on budgeting and management, this is not the way that public officials really want it. "This is a subject of constant frustration with the public officials I meet with," she says. "They say, "We need and want citizen input, but we don't now how to get it,' and that's really rubbing people the wrong way, especially in this economy."

So what's keeping public officials from bringing citizens into budget discussions in a regular and meaningful way? A couple of things, says Carol Ebdon, who not only teaches public-sector budgeting but also practices it as head of the budget office in Omaha, Nebraska. Engaging citizens takes money and staff time, she notes -- two resources that governments tend not to have a lot of, especially these days.

Another big reason for the lack of engagement: Contrary to what Stein says she's hearing, plenty of elected officials seem perfectly happy to leave citizens out of the process. A study of more than 140 cities and counties, done by the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina, found that some 71 percent of respondents cited a lack of interest on the part of elected officials as the number-one reason why citizens were not more involved in budgeting. Citizens evinced some interest, but still not a great deal. The institute found that almost 40 percent of the cities and counties queried cited poor citizen response to their past efforts as one of the major reasons for dropping the notion of bringing them into the budget-writing process.

Despite such bleak assessments, the Government Finance Officers Association recently approved a new "best practice," prosaically titled: "Public Participation in Planning, Budgeting, and Performance Management," which outlines why it is important to involve citizens in fashioning budgets and suggests strategies for doing that.

Indeed, the landscape isn't totally bereft of places making sincere efforts to try to draw citizens into budgeting. But where they are, it's often on account of one or two officials who have gotten interested in pushing the practice.

In Redmond, Washington, those two officials are Mayor John Marchione and city council member Richard Cole, who teamed up to kick off what the city is calling "budgeting by priorities." According to Marchione, there are five objectives behind the new approach to crafting budgets: to align the budget with citizen priorities; to measure progress toward priorities; to get the best value for each tax dollar; to foster continuous learning in city government; and finally, to build regional cooperation.

These are all admirable goals, of course, but the budgeting-by-priorities exercise as described in Redmond is complex, administratively daunting and somewhat fuzzy. Services are allocated specific costs. Priorities are set through citizen focus groups. A "citizen guidance team" works through ranked priorities with the mayor. City departments are asked to bid on work to achieve those priorities. The initiative is still in its first year, so it's too early to evaluate the success of Redmond's new approach to citizen-flavored budgeting.

Meanwhile, Durham -- with more than a decade in the citizen-engagement business under its belt -- held its regular "coffee with council" meetings during February and March. The coffees were "designed to give citizens the opportunity to provide direct input to council members on the upcoming 2009-10 fiscal year budget," according to the city's Web site. The city added another event, though, in large part because of how tight the upcoming budget is going to be, says Page, the deputy city manager. The city organized a large-scale citizen summit at the end of February, during which it used facilitated workshops to get citizens directly involved in "helping us prioritize city programs and services," she says.

In Loveland, Colorado, where citizen involvement also has become more institutionalized, a nine-member "Citizen Finance Advisory Commission," appointed by the city council, works with the city manager and meets with department directors as the city goes about fashioning its budget. The commission then receives monthly updates on the fiscal state of the city throughout the year.

Round Rock, Texas, recently mustered its own ambitious citizen-involvement effort as part of its push to fashion a long-range budget plan. An important part of the exercise was helping citizens to understand the give-and-take of resources versus service levels, which is why the city went so far as to create an interactive Web-based calculator, which allowed citizens to see how changes in levels of specific city services would impact their property taxes.

And as Bev Stein's old haunt, Multnomah County, faces its ninth straight year of budget cuts, Deb Kafoury, a freshman county commissioner and former minority leader in the Oregon House, points to several things officials there are doing to bring citizens into the process well in advance of its July 1 budget deadline. First, the commission has committed to a total of 100 community meetings to explain to constituents what's going on with the county's budget and why times are so tough. The county also is going to hold two large budget summits -- one looking at public safety, the other at human services.

The plan for the two big events -- assuming enough people show up -- is to split participants into work groups, each of which will be asked to mull over service-level and -delivery options and then make choices around spending priorities. "So it isn't the same old dog-and-pony show of people standing up and saying why you shouldn't cut their program," Kafoury says.

Other large cities have followed suit, inspired by the particularly bad budget times they are experiencing. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter took his budget show on the road in February and actually drew some crowds -- 500 people at one meeting in Germantown, where the assembly broke into groups of 20 to wrestle with how to balance the city's budget. In an essay for the Philadelphia Daily News , commentator Dave Davies described the scene as "very cool, inspiring even" and "far superior to a shout-fest." And he allowed that it also helped the average citizen understand how complicated municipal budgeting really is. Still, Davies concluded that process was fairly meaningless when it came to actually shaping the budget. "We are not going to focus group our way out of this mess," he wrote. "In the end, Mayor Nutter will have to lead."

That's also true in Minneapolis, where two recent citizen-budget confabs were sparsely attended, with the meetings drawing fewer than 100 people combined. While city budget director Heather Johnston says the hearings were helpful, it's unlikely that the musings of 75 citizens will have a profound impact on Mayor R.T. Rybak's final budget submission.

Which is why budget veterans, such as Omaha's Ebdon, think that at the end of the day, government officials probably have to scale back their expectations when it comes to the extent to which they are ever going to truly engage citizens in budgeting. "I think the place I'm in now is to simply push for educating citizens; it's very important because it's pretty clear that people really don't understand what things cost and the trade-offs required when you start talking about how to balance revenues and service demands. The irony is that in times like these, when you most need to do that, you don't have the time or the money."

(Note: This online version has been changed to correct the attribution of an essay that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News.)

Outreach Inertia

Top five reasons given for not making an extra effort to involve citizens in government budgeting decisions, based on survey responses from 143 cities and counties in North Carolina:

1 Lack of governing board interest

2 Poor response in past

3 Citizens won't respond

4 Lack of time

5 Lack of personnel

Source: UNC Institute of Government

These articles are part of a continuing series on public performance measurement focusing on citizen involvement. Support has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Although the foundation may assist some of the programs described in these articles, it had no control or influence over the editorial content, and no one at Sloan read the material prior to publication. All reporting and editing was done independently by Governing staff.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Management & Labor