Trust. Everyone wants it. It’s very hard to earn, and even harder to keep. At the 2016 ICMA Convention in Kansas City, New York Times writer and NPR commentator David Brooks told the audience that Americans are increasingly distrustful of everyone and everything. He quoted a 2014 Pew Study that found “only about 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted.”
There is one bright spot: A September 2016 Gallup Poll reported that 71 percent of respondents had a “great deal/fair amount of trust in local government. However, many local governments are not resting on their successes and continue to make great strides to keep and increase public trust. One way to do that is to actively engage the public in the budget development process.
While many governmental entities convene formal public hearings on the budget at City Hall, some cities such as Fort Collins, Colorado are trying new approaches to engage residents. In planning the 2017-2018 budget cycle, the City of Ft. Collins, Colorado took the budget directly to the people in order to communicate financial information and potential plans, but more importantly, to get input from the community.
The premise was simple: Include people in decisions about how their taxes should be spent. But budgets are complex and hard to understand. Even though the budget may be the most important policy document in local government, most people tune out. The question is how can budgets be made accessible and approachable?
Time and time again we hear that the same people attend traditional budget hearings. This led Annie Bierbower, Civic Engagement Liaison for the City of Fort Collins, to seek out ways to engage more than the usual suspects. They wanted to connect with a diverse audience and include a variety of ages and backgrounds including:
- The business community
- Low-income residents
- Spanish speakers
- Non-Profit Organizations
- Homeless individuals
Balancing Act, an online budget simulation provided the focal point for their budget outreach effort. City staff organized budget proposals by themes, City-wide goals, and departments to help make the lengthy and detailed documents more understandable. “The most important part of the process was creating different levels or access points for people. Some people want to read every detail but many want more general information,” wrote Bierbower. “We got a very diverse spectrum of the community from all levels of education. The ethnicity breakdown is proportional to the most recent census data and there was a wide range of ages and income levels represented,” she also said.
In addition to using Balancing Act, Fort Collins employed other strategies that brought in more views:
- Mobile Budget Booths set up in a variety of locations around town
- Questionnaire & Budget Cards
- Feature banner on fcgov.com
- Customized outreach
- Presentations to local organizations and groups
- Press Releases and other traditional media
- Social Media
The input was put into two reports—one for internal leaders and another for City Council. "We were able to use the backend data to break down and see what themes were chosen and show this to the decision makers." People were able to create their own budget using Balancing Act and prioritize themes in a simplified paper version of the activity. Transportation received the highest increase in budget. “We’re happy to say this was reflected in the final budget. The City is working on expanding public transportation. Something the community has wanted for years,” wrote Bierbower.
As an encore, Fort Collins staff is updating the budget simulation with the approved numbers so residents can use it throughout the year. “We want this to be an ongoing educational tool. We plan to take this into our high schools so they can learn about public engagement and how to make a budget on such a large scale."
If trust in government is the goal, then Fort Collins is blazing new trails with innovative governance that is sure to pay off now and in the future when today’s high school students are paying the majority of taxes and considering what they want from their government. “Expectations for involvement are constantly growing and local government has the benefit of working closely with the people. The community can create and see change here which makes projects like these so rewarding. We already have improvement ideas for next time,” wrote Bierbower.
About Balancing Act: To learn how the budget simulator, Balancing Act, brings people and government officials closer together in an informed conversation about what priorities are in your community’s best interests, go to www.abalancingact.com. You can view a demo, sign up for a 30-day free trial, and learn about the Balancing Act Taxpayer Receipt.