Brenda Morrison and Chris Adams explain how to bring your constituents together for better budget solutions that move your city forward. 

[divider] [/divider]

Citizens are increasingly disconnected from the public budgets that impact their pocketbooks and daily lives, but smart leadership in the budget process can change this.

The 2012 Census of Governments counts 89,005 public budget entities in the United States, including the federal government, 3,031 counties, 19,522 municipalities, 16,364 towns, 12,884 school districts, and 37,203 special purpose districts (utility, fire, police, library, etc.).

That’s a whole lot of public budgets that need inspired leadership to move communities toward their common vision and goals. To harness the power of their constituents and create broadly supported budgets, government leaders should consider these five strategies:

1) Continuously revisit why you ran for office.

In a recent budget toolbox session for city leaders, participants summed up the reasons they ran for office in single words. The most notable of these were “transparency,” “development,” “growth,” “connectedness” and “accountability.”

It’s difficult to keep these larger goals in mind when budgets bring about tough questions with no single right answer. When conflicts arise, keep returning to the reasons you ran office, and this will help you stay focused on larger budget goals.

2) Frame the budget as a leader.

Savvy municipal leaders understand that the budget is many things to many people:

  • a financial plan;
  • a communications document;
  • a reflection of local government priorities; and,
  • a tool for accountability.

But once budget negotiations begin drilling down into math and minutiae, budget leaders can lose sight of the larger themes. To avoid this, stay focused on values and problem solving. Leave the administrative and technical issues to professional staff, or seek help from your state municipal league or state government.

3) Hone your negotiating skills.

Strong negotiating skills are necessary when trying to solve the toughest budget problems – the right vs. right problems. Effective leadership while negotiating means you must consider the larger themes, as articulated by the Institute for Global Ethics:

  • short-term versus long-term;
  • individuals versus communities;
  • justice versus mercy; and,
  • truth versus loyalty.

The book “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” describes a negotiating style of constantly searching for mutual gains and what is most important to each party. Interest-based negotiation starts with developing and preserving the relationship. Parties educate each other about their needs, and then jointly problem solve on how to meet those needs.

It’s important to note that bad negotiators are like bad drivers: harmful to themselves and dangerous to others. Unfortunately, the history of policymaking is littered with missed opportunities due to bad negotiators.

Unless we want to keep having the same conversations about the same issues with the same inadequate solutions, policy makers need to be excellent negotiators.

4) Engage the public.

“Public engagement” and “government transparency” are more than buzz words in the budget process.

Successful public engagement on the budget can counteract the political apathy so increasingly prevalent in our democracy. Innovators in technology and public policy are developing a range of high touch and high tech methods as alternatives to the giant budget PDFs and budget sessions that offer participants three minutes at the mic but not much genuine participation.

These new budget methods both educate and involve citizens so they can develop better governments that improve society. They include:

  • open data platforms that bring financial transparency to government;
  • participatory budgeting practices that bring groups of citizens together to allocate public dollars; and,
  • civic technology tools that both broaden and deepen citizen input through web and mobile-based tools.

To ensure effective public engagement, leaders need to plan and prepare using the right strategies that consider purpose, issue, primary message, audience and timing. They also need to cultivate an environment of shared purpose, openness, learning, transparency and trust. This builds a participatory culture that leads to sustained engagement.

A detail from the city of San Antonio's budget.

5) Embrace technology’s power.

The public’s expectation of how government should use technology to operate is often defined by the private sector’s use of technology. This means citizens are expecting more technology tools as part of government processes.

For fiscal year 2016, San Antonio engaged residents in a conversation about the budget through #SASpeakUp, which enabled residents to join the budget conversation through in-person meetings or from the comfort of their home on a computer or smartphone by using the city’sinteractive budget on Balancing Act, available in both English and Spanish.

The interactive budget enabled citizens to learn about the complex tradeoffs involved in balancing a $1 billion general fund budget. They also got to try their hand at actually balancing increases in certain programs and services with cuts in others.

All of the priorities and ideas gathered from #SASpeakUp were then presented to City Council.

“We thought about it from the residents’ perspective, and saw that we needed to make the budget process more accessible and easier than ever to participate,” said Bryan Layton, assistant director for innovation. “Instead of just asking residents to come to us, we went to them (digitally and physically) as much as possible.”

[divider] [/divider]

Originally posted at Cities Speak.

This article is based on the budget toolbox session led by Brenda and Chris and presented by NLC University at the 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville, Tennessee.

Brenda Morrison is a partner at Engaged Public and co-founder of Balancing Act, an online budget simulation app, and the Taxpayer Receipt tool.


Chris Adams is president of Engaged Public, a Denver-based public policy firm that created Balancing Act.