Mary Bunting, the city manager of Hampton, Va., knows firsthand the importance of engaging citizens in the budget process.

A few years ago, in the throes of the recession, Bunting noticed a frustrating trend in the budgeting process. Her staff would paintakingly prepare a budget using careful cost-benefit analysis -- only to see it derailed in the final hours when an interest group would complain about a cut.

So in 2010 Bunting set out to gather public input early in the budget process. Each year since then, she's added new ways for citizens to get engaged. Today, she hosts 800-person live events with keypad polling, in addition to conducting online polls, telephone surveys and smaller town hall meetings. Her staff even routinely visits community events, such as soccer club meetings, to connect with citizens who don’t normally attend city meetings.

“I wanted [the public] to understand the complexity of the budget and the tradeoffs,” Bunting said. “The biggest thing I was trying to do was to build a body of evidence, so that [the council] understood that there was a larger group of residents that supported the cuts.”

Apparently, Bunting was onto something. Inviting public comment early in the budget process, and doing so in multiple ways, is closely associated with better performance outcomes, according to a new study in The American Review of Public Administration.

State and local government meetings, from a state agency to a county board, are notoriously low in attendance. Some governments have reacted with experiments to spur better public involvement, especially in drafting budgets. Since 2008, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore has invited residents of his ward to vote on how to spend about $1 million of the city’s budget on a menu of community infrastructure projects. (The 2012 winners were sidewalk repairs, a new playground, neighborhood murals and more than 100 tree plantings.) Last year in Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn’s office used an interactive online game to gauge public support on spending areas, such as public safety and human services.

Despite this patchwork of efforts to involve citizens, public administrators still don’t know exactly when to seek public input and how it might affect the day-to-day work of governing. So Hai Guo and Milena Neshkova, both assistant professors in the Department of Public Administration at Florida International University, set out to study the relationship between citizen participation in budgeting and measurable performance outcomes. Their analysis relied on 2005 survey data on state transportation agencies and their civic engagement strategies (focus groups, for example) across four stages in the budget process.

Because their research focused solely on transportation agencies, they looked at transportation-related outcomes that governments value: fewer road-related fatalities and fewer poor-quality roads. They took into account external factors, such as level of funding, that might account for differences in fatality rates or road conditions. They found that not only is there an inverse relationship (more attempts at civic engagement mean fewer fatalities and low-quality roads), but that the relationship is statistically significant. In other words, the result isn’t due to chance.

More importantly, the association was strongest at the earliest stage in the process. “You need to engage them early. I think that’s the point we’re trying to make,” Guo said. Since the analysis was specific to state transportation departments, Guo says he'd like to see if the same pattern would emerge at other levels of government.

Bunting’s own experience in Hampton aligns largely with the findings of the study. Since reaching out to the public at the beginning of the budget cycle, and doing so in multiple ways, she says she hasn’t heard the same level of outcry when budgets arrive at the council’s desk; and to the degree that criticism still exists, it’s only part of a much larger public discussion already informing the budget. Last September the White House recognized Bunting as an “innovation champion of change” for her work in promoting open government in her city.