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Local Government Spending and the Brexit Factor

Important budget decisions needn't be made in an atmosphere of anger or ignorance. There's much that governments can do to engage the public in the process.

June's Brexit vote was remarkable for several reasons, but the one that caught my attention was the apparent buyer's remorse of so many of those who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Millions of people have signed a petition asking for a "ReBrexit" vote -- essentially a do-over. And a large number of voters, it's now clear, didn't understand what they were voting against. Google reports that the second most googled term following the election was "What is the EU?"

Great question, and there is abundant fault to be shared among voters, who didn't ask it sooner, and public officials, who didn't find a way to demonstrate to voters the benefits of remaining in the EU and the consequences of leaving. For public officials on this side of the Atlantic, there is much to be learned from what happened in the U.K. By the time that the Brexit issue came before the voters, the opportunity for learning, reasoned thinking and thoughtful discussion was over. The election was carried by emotion, primarily anger.

Anger is no stranger to American politics, of course, and one place it frequently manifests itself is in the area of local government spending. That's why governments need to undertake truly effective strategies to educate and engage voters in this most fundamental of all governance issues. If residents don't have a basic understanding of -- and general agreement with -- the budgeting process and the taxing and spending decisions it produces, public entities are susceptible to waves of anger that can profoundly change what they do and how they do it.

For evidence that local governments are vulnerable on this issue, look no further than the current status of public engagement on the budget. Almost universally, budget outreach consists of little more than an obligatory public meeting ("three minutes at the mic") and posting a PDF of the budget book on the finance department's webpage. Some localities produce a so-called "citizens' budget," attempting to explain finance matters in accessible language, but the information is usually without context and does nothing to encourage informed input and create consent of the governed.

So what can local government do to build and retain trust on its most important policy issue? Actually, quite a lot:

• Reject the conventional wisdom that budgets are too complex and inaccessible for the public to get involved with. Instead, take it as a challenge to be innovative and creative. One noteworthy example is San Antonio, Texas' #SASPEAKUP campaign, which used a mashup of social media, branding and simulation to increase participation in the budget process by 200 percent last year.

• Meet residents' expectations for clear information presented to them in the format of their choice. Hearings and PDF's are fine, but more and more people expect information online. High-quality, cloud-based software make it easier than ever to provide interactive tools, such as the one used by the city of Nashville, that both educate and engage.

• Be genuine. Understandably, public officials might be a bit wary of residents getting overly involved in budgeting when most don't have a background in finance or limitless time to learn the issues. Rather than providing an excuse for minimal engagement, however, this should be seen as a design challenge. Public officials should be asking themselves some questions: What are the most important budget items for residents to consider? And how can we present them so that residents can genuinely participate in the process?

There are good reasons why local government officials might be reluctant to open up their budgeting processes. As appealing as transparency, accountability and engagement sound, it is not always the case that residents are willing to take the time to learn about issues, weigh tradeoffs and provide informed input. Often people are single-issue focused ("fix my street"; "open the rec center when I want to use it") rather than thinking about the well-being of the entire community.

But this is yet another opportunity for transparency -- not just in how dollars are allocated but also about why a given budget has been proposed. Once this kind of sharing of information has occurred, then it's possible to ask the really important questions -- questions like "Should the next $100,000 in public-safety spending go to the police department, midnight basketball or community development? Or should we just save the money and give everybody a tax cut?"

No one can say for sure that costly expressions of distrust like Brexit would not happen even if this type of engagement existed between government and its constituents. But in a world where conversations about important policy issues are easier than ever to create, it's increasingly possible to imagine that the anger that fueled Brexit could have found a more constructive outlet. Instead of destroying the institutions of governance, such engagement would help build it.

President of Balancing Act and a Senior Fellow at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs
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