We have cultivated a social norm that budgeting is complex, time-consuming, or only for people with a particular understanding of mathematics or economics. However, this preconceived notion is untrue — anyone can be a budget person.

Cities, towns, and counties across the globe have continued to find innovative and creative ways of including public input in the budgeting process, from people-centric techniques to the use of technology and data. Local governments can help demystify city budgets for all. To remove connection barriers between local governments and the community, it is essential that city budgets are made accessible, inclusive, and tangible.

Public engagement in any area of local government is important, but budgeting should be one area that receives a special amount of attention. City and county budgets directly impact their residents’ everyday lives and the services accessible to them in their communities. Encouraging civic engagement in budget processes builds bridges between constituent needs and local government action. It also encourages residents to provide valuable feedback. So, why is it challenging to encourage people to participate in the budgetary process? The fact of the matter is that city and county budgets are complex, long, and, at times, difficult to digest. Local governments are well aware of this, and in response have begun incorporating contemporary methods of encouraging more community engagement in this important process.

Participatory Budgeting

One way of encouraging residents to participate in this process is through a direct democracy method called participatory budgeting. This form of public engagement empowers residents and makes the budget approachable and even entertaining. Some communities have successfully used participatory budgeting to encourage young people to become civically engaged, and others have shifted their attention to working-age adults.

One example of this is in Helsinki, Finland. A few years ago, local leaders decided to experiment with participatory budgeting and gamified the project proposal process. This experiment resulted in a card game designed to be easy and non-bureaucratic while also proposing real-life solutions to residents’ challenges. Once the game is complete and participants have time to discuss their ideas, the project proposals are submitted to the city online. From there, the proposals are placed on their website for residents to vote for the projects they believe will improve their city.

Data Visualization

As technology continues to advance, local governments are using new digital tools to encourage input, transparency, and participation. Cities like Dallas are displaying budget data in easy-to-use interactive tables with breakdowns by fund type and then departments. Dallas also creatively chose to make this data even more accessible through upbeat explanation videos in English and Spanish.

South Gate, California, is an example of a city that uses interactive tools for community members to see where funding is going. This platform includes easy-to-read graphs and visualizations that break down fiscal year spending by departments and city services provided. Additionally, the general public can access filters and additional information if they wish to dive deeper into city spending, assets, and liabilities.

In Kansas City, residents can review city line item budgets and additional information on infrastructure, crime, land use, and more on the city’s website. Kansas City also created a Twitter profile and a Facebook page for residents who use social media in order to share this information with as many residents as possible.

Another widely accessible alternative for cities and counties can be based on a new California State budget tool. This “budget challenge” lists a variety of propositions proposed by the governor and legislature. Individuals can see how much different proposals cost and they can self-select which initiatives are most appropriate for them. The result is a unique balanced budget created by weighing trade-offs for the individual. Using this data, governments can see the programs that people value most and citizens can feel involved and have a stronger understanding of the budgetary process.

Benefits for All

While these tools can be highly beneficial for residents, local government employees can reap the benefits as well. Having an accessible tool can support employees who may need quick access to budget information or are assisting constituents with questions they may have regarding city allocations. As for participatory budgeting, local government leaders can gain a better understanding of which projects are important to community members. Both public engagement strategies strengthen community voice and trust that local leaders will continue to address their needs.

Cities and counties continue to diversify their methods of engagement to include a wide range of perspectives in budgeting. Using new methods of community involvement can allow local governments to increase engagement in the budget process, create a higher level of transparency, and address the notion that local government budgets are inaccessible and difficult. This can also positively impact local trust between local governments and the residents they serve. City/county budgets will always be complex, but we can encourage more people to join the discussion through continued creativity and innovation.

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