Inviting the Public In

What can we do to enhance the public's ability to understand what government is doing and why? Invite them into the budget process, writes Frank Fairbanks.
September 19, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Frank Fairbanks
By Frank Fairbanks  |  Contributor
Frank Fairbanks was a GOVERNING contributor. He has served as city manager of Phoenix since 1990 and was named one of GOVERNING's Public Officials of the Year in 1994.

Government grows more complex daily. This complexity impacts our alternatives and our decisions about services. It powerfully influences what the public receives or does not receive from government.

What can we do to enhance the public's ability to understand what government is doing and why?

The most important factor influencing service delivery is budgeting: the annual budget process sets service levels for the coming year. How can we help the public to grasp the difficult choices that public officials face? What can we do to help the public understand our financial resources, service costs, and decisions?

We believe that if you do not involve the public in the budget process, you can not make sustainable decisions. Phoenix has worked hard to develop effective citizen participation in the budget. Throughout the budget process, we use multiple pathways--including the media--to share information.

The process begins with televised city council meetings in which the basic financial forecast is developed. Although council members quickly understand the financial situation, we take time to discuss revenue estimates and cost projections, using graphs and charts to make issues clear and concrete. We talk about how the local economy impacts our revenues. We discuss different funding sources. We separate operating expenditures from capital expenditures. We identify major revenue and expenditure alternatives that will be explored. We create a context.

Most city departments have community boards or commissions tasked with reviewing department programs. The boards are composed of both general community leaders and special interest leaders focused on the specific service provided (libraries, social services, parks, etc.) Before any department submits its budget request, management briefs their board on the outlook for the budget, reviewing potential program improvements and budget cuts. Department management asks their board to participate in prioritizing budget requests and potential cuts.

For years, we struggled with the challenge of finding a way to make budget decisions and alternatives real to the public. Our solution has been to create a "Trial Budget" six weeks before final budget decisions are made. The trial budget presents revenue forecasts and identifies potential programs to be expanded and/or cut. Every significant budgetary issue is discussed in "newspaper language" written to be easily understood and non-technical.

The trial budget is widely publicized. The city pays to print this budget and distribute it as a supplement in the Sunday newspaper; it is also distributed in weekly newspapers read by ethnic minority populations and placed on the web. The city council hosts more than a dozen community budget hearings, and the newspaper insert is distributed at every meeting. Each meeting begins with a ten minute video tape that summarizes budget issues and identifies key program expansions and cuts.

Everyone attending these meetings gets an opportunity to express their opinion about the budget, commenting on what is proposed in the trial budget or pushing a new idea that is not included. Residents can also phone in or e-mail comments and ideas. Public input is carefully recorded and shared with the Mayor and the city council prior to final budget decisions. Each year, ideas that originated in these community meetings have been included in the budget.

A few years ago we needed to make significant cuts to balance our general fund budget. One of our first steps was to take pains to fully explain to the public why the cuts were needed. One proposal from the Parks Department included cutting adult arts classes at one of the city's community arts centers. When word spread about this proposal, community members took action: constituents called their council members, the Mayor, and city staff and appeared at budget hearings to discuss the importance of these classes to the community. In the end, the affected community members--people taking adult arts classes--suggested that the city increase class registration fees in order to continue the classes within a balanced budget. And, ultimately, that is what was done.

The budget process can provide the public an opportunity to understand how the city works--and, in turn, community budget hearings offer elected officials and city managers an opportunity to learn community priorities and include that input in their decision-making processes. The openness of the process in Phoenix has generally reduced budget politics and increased community understanding and support for how the city spends its money.

In fact, in the last fifteen years, the public has voted to increase taxes three times to hire more police officers and firefighters, to build parks and desert preserves, and to dramatically improve public transit service. Next week they will vote whether to raise taxes again to hire additional police and fire. And, the 2006 city bond program contained $878.5 million in bonds in ten separate categories -- all approved by large margins by the voters.