Who would have thought letting the public direct public services would turn out so well?

By Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna and Abigail Scott

As any effective local government leader will tell you, policies that begin with the people are more likely to be successful than policies that operate in a top-down approach. As the fiscal impact of the pandemic continues to require creative solutions, some localities have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to letting the public take the lead on public engagement.

The City of Roseville, CA, has led the way with its award-winning initiative, EngageRoseville. The program was designed to “get feedback from citizens, business owners and visitors about services offered by the City and what level of service is best to meet your needs given the budget constraints.”

As cities take a more intentional approach to public engagement on fiscal issues, it paves the way for community feedback to be placed at the center of municipal budgeting. This “new” approach to public engagement is used to educate residents about the city’s fiscal parameters and intelligently ask the public which public services should be prioritized.

Similarly, the City of Vallejo started incorporating Participatory Budgeting (PB) with an emphasis on allowing for meaningful opportunities for the public to provide input. The process aims to give residents “the opportunity to develop and prioritize community-generated ideas for a portion of the city budget for city council consideration.” The underlying motivations behind PB are threefold: improve the city, engage the community, and open up government.

The key for both cities was to provide continuous, flexible, accessible opportunities for citizens to more directly participate in the local services they employ. In doing so, these two cities proved that small local governments that can effectively engage constituents to innovate and meet the needs of their communities, as long as they look directly to their citizens for direction.

On the other hand, these new solutions do come with their own challenges. Bringing residents into fiscal discussions requires complete and continual transparency on the part of the city. This forces difficult conversations with residents conveying the fiscal landscape, unfunded liabilities, as well as revenue challenges.

EngageRoseville gathered a truly impressive, diverse range of public participation over the course of the input period. Vallejo’s initiative also engaged a diverse range of residents and community members, all of which generated over 800 project ideas. “More than 11 percent of residents attending assemblies were over 18 years of age but not registered to vote, suggesting that Participatory Budgeting engaged residents typically not involved in civic affairs.”

As the pandemic continues, local governments need to continually adapt and innovate with new ways to engage with residents. Roseville and Vallejo are encouraging examples of cities thinking outside the box and finding creative ways to bring in the community in the otherwise top-down systems of government and public services.

Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University