Author: Whitney Afonso (page 1 of 3)

Upcoming Workshop: Implementing Field Experiments for Innovation and Success

Good morning!  I wanted to make people aware that there will be a free workshop on 12/13 from 11-12 as a pre-conference event for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association’s Winter Conference (NCLGBA).  This year’s NCLGBA conference is in Durham at the Washington Duke Inn.

Implementing Field Experiments for Innovation and Success

Is your service delivery not as effective as it should be? Could your department streamline current processes?   Do you see problems in your organization but lack ideas on how to address it?  If so, this is the pre-conference workshop for you.

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Consulting with Citizens

Consultation is a different beast altogether than information sharing.  Whereas information sharing is a one way relationship, consultation creates a two way relationship based on citizen feedback.  It relies on a fundamental assumption by local leaders that citizen feedback is beneficial to the budget process and decision making (often with regard to expenditures or even tax rate setting).  This method provides for and encourages citizen input while still allowing local leaders to define the agenda.  The key is that practitioners and elected officials solicit input a set of issues and questions that they create and control. 

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Budgeting in Local Government: Registration now open

Budgeting in Local Government
October 31st – November 3rd, 2017, School of Government

This four-day course covers the legal and management framework of budget preparation and enactment in North Carolina local government.  Participants will discuss the numerous processes and techniques used to produce an annual operating budget and capital budget.

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Engaging our future: A guide to going into the classroom

In the last three blogs we have been talking about citizen engagement (see here, here, and here).  One of the areas that is most frustrating for governments is often their attempts to engage citizens are not particularly successful.  Citizens may not have time or easy access to the events and resources, but there are ways around that.  What happens when it is simply that citizens DO NOT WANT to engage?  That is often the reality.  Governments spend precious time and resources developing great opportunities but no one (or few) takes advantage of them.  This is an aspect of citizen engagement I have been personally interested in and one that I believe we can address by starting ‘em young.

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The classics: Traditional modes of information sharing

 

Consider these tactics and efforts the Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, and Alice in Wonderland of sharing budget information.  Except no one makes you read (or watch) these in high school.

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The first step in citizen engagement: Information Sharing

The first step, in my opinion, in productive citizen engagement is providing information and helping educate citizens about government and budgeting.  This is because government is just a black box to most people.  They sort of understand some of the most basic functions of government, but may not have any idea of which level of government does it.  Who pays for libraries? Roads? Do I have police and a sheriff?  What about fire service?  What does the state even do?  These are not unrealistic questions.

Therefore, it should not be surprising the primary way the local governments engage with citizens is to push information out to them.  This phase of engagement can be characterized as a one way relationship between government and citizens where government is delivering information.

Have you heard about transparency, open government, or open data?  Of course you have.  These efforts are all a part of this initial phase.  They involve governments (local and other) making documents and information public and accessible to citizens.  The goal is that citizens will learn about government and hold government accountable.  So in the past that may have meant that the budget was available at the local library, now it is available online and searchable!  For example, want to see know how much Charlotte’s Aviation department spent on postage?  Sure!  They were appropriated $40,000 in FY2016.  Of course, there is no context for that and it may seem outrageous to many.  That is a problem with just posting everything online.  A lot of people do not know what they are looking for or how to interpret what they are seeing.  I always think about this as one of those scenes in a legal drama where the defense requests a file and what they get is a room full of file boxes and papers to sort through.

Is that really transparency and engagement?  I think it can be done better, but making it all public is important and valuable, I just think we can do better.  Websites make a lot of this information push a lot easier.  While that is great and I applaud the efforts, government needs to be mindful of how easy it is to navigate.  There is evidence that having little videos that explain some of the terminology and how to navigate and find what you are looking for helps citizens a lot.  This may be something you want to consider.  You can also be innovative about how you present data in the first place.  A great example of this is what Asheville is doing.  They had originally had something similar that was done through a Code for Asheville group, but now they are hosting something pretty similar on their own website.

What I like about it is that it presents the different areas of expenditures and visually presents them based on their size.  This is more effective in helping people understand the scope of expenditures and the differences in the level of program spending.  It also allows the user to click on the box and dive deeper into the spending in that area.  For example, above is a visualization two clicks in from the full budget.  I first clicked enterprise and then water.  This is a simple way to present some of this information in a digestible way.  One thing that may have made it even better would be having definitions involved for those residents that do not know what enterprises are, for example.  You could also link to the website of these departments or that section of the budget.

I will admit I like their old one slightly more, see a screen shot of it here:

That is because I prefer being able to quickly see how it has changed over time and by how much.  However, both are good and better than what you find in most jurisdictions.

Another example of information sharing is the taxpayer receipt.  The basic idea here is that you get a receipt for everything else you spend your money on; why not get one for your taxes.  While I am a big believer in not treating citizens like customers, I think that this is an effective tool for making the numbers meaningful.  In fact, I wrote a bulletin on the taxpayer receipt that lays out some of the arguments for it and how you could create one yourself.  I show you how to create one that is static; i.e., one that you could mail to people or leave in the library or town hall.  There are also dynamic ones where you can input your actual tax burdens and see what your numbers look like.  Rather than having to create one yourself there are companies that will do it for you like Balancing Act (and yes that is my paper they link to).

Charlotte has taken them on and created their own tool, though they have used it as a simulation to balance the budget.  Depending on how they choose to use that information Charlotte’s tool may be closer to the second phase of engagement: consultation.  Which we will get to in a future blog!

Of course, there are more traditional ways of reaching out to citizens to provide information such as public access channel videos (or online videos) and budget fact sheets.  Tune in next time for a quick overview of those more traditional ways of sharing budget information (and you do not even have to wait a full month—consider it a bonus!).

Final thoughts: Benefits of these information sharing tools is that they are pretty efficient.  Governments can reach a lot of people and make a lot of information available.  Those strategies are also relatively low cost and do not require too much effort or burden on the budget office or IT.  You could just get an amazing intern to work on some of it, may I recommend a Carolina MPA student?  Some problems with these strategies is that they rely on citizens actively seeking out information.  You will likely not reach passive citizens, and they may represent the vast majority of citizens.

 

Citizen Engagement in the Budgeting Process

There has been a lot of interest in how to tighten up the relationships between citizens and their local governments.  At the local level there is a lot more opportunity to work with and get feedback from citizens. This is accomplished by many communities and in various ways.  I believe, and I know this will be shocking, that the budget is the single best place to engage citizens.  The budget is the encyclopedia of government.  The budget reflects what government does and reflects priorities based on spending decisions, as well as changes in the community as reflected in changes in the budget from year to year.

***I love this quote from a VP debate in 2012. 1) It is true. 2) It is hilarious because we are living in a time of continuing resolutions rather than budgets at the federal level, so I guess we prioritize not making hard decisions and not working together.***

I also believe that some of you are groaning because citizens can make the process more difficult and complicated, the concern for the squeaky wheel gets the grease comes to mind, and that the citizen input we get may not be well informed, representative, or even reasonable.  I get all that, but still… there are ways we can engage with citizens in a meaningful way.

In North Carolina, for example, not only will we post our budgets online we also are legally required to have a budget hearing.  Of course, the budget is often adopted immediately (or shortly) after that hearing.  This suggests that the citizen input may not have shaped the budget too much. While this sounds like I am coming after you all I want to be clear, your concerns are fair and often the reality.  It is true that at town halls and budget hearings we may get primarily the citizens that are upset about one thing like a pothole or property taxes and they may not understand the scope of government and may not be well informed—and almost always they are mostly concerned with things that directly affect them and may not be thinking of the entire community.  Does that mean we abandon the the notion of citizen input?  Are there ways beyond the typical budget hearing and town hall that we can engage with citizens that may lead to better results?

Well let’s back up and get on the same page.  What even is citizen engagement?  I think a reasonable way to think about it is to say that citizens and communities are engaged when there are a series of connections between citizens and their governments on policies, programs, and service issues and decisions.  These connections can be in the form of information sharing, consultation, and in some cases active roles in decision-making.  Of course, it also depends who you ask.  There is evidence that on one end of the spectrum elected officials consider their election and lack of complaining as a sign engagement and satisfaction in contrast to the other end of the spectrum to citizens who view engagement to be a two-way communication where they can be involved in the process.  Right in the middle are practitioners who often see educating citizens about government so that they can be community advocates and help explain to their fellow citizens the tough choices government has to make.

All of these are reasonable definitions and reflect that citizen engagement can mean many different things.  I am going to tackle citizen engagement and present it from a framework of three different phases: information, consultation, and active participation.  I will give examples of all of these from here in North Carolina and around the country in some cases.

However, before we get into the fun stuff (or at least the meat of the issue) I want to offer some words of wisdom about citizen engagement.

First, you need to be thoughtful about your community and the diversity in your community.  Most governments that are interested in citizen engagement will implement multiple strategies because not all citizens are the same.  So for example, if you are doing town halls you need to think about transportation issues.  Do you the majority of your residents have a way to attend the meeting?  How about the timing of the meeting, are you excluding a large population because they have family responsibilities or second jobs perhaps?

Oh, so maybe an internet or phone survey is a better way to go! Well… do you live in a community with a large non-English speaking population?  If you are thinking about a survey, you will need to copies available in other languages.  What population of people has landlines these days?  Not the younger population for sure, so that will skew your results.  On the flipside, what about the people without computers at home or who are uncomfortable with the technology?

This is why it is advisable to have multiple outlets for engagement and feedback.  Also, try and be aware if you are not hearing from certain parts of your community.  One strategy could be to reach out to community leaders and ask them how to better reach them or see if there is a meeting or function, you could attend to better integrate those populations.  Sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it… it can be.

This is why you want to make sure that you are being thoughtful about where and how you engage.  You NEVER want to get feedback from citizens that you do not plan on using.  It is a waste of your time and of their time.  Instead of building bridges and strengthening your community it will leave people more frustrated and distrustful.  This is going to be an especially important lesson for the second two phases: consultation and active participation.  Providing information and helping citizens better understand government, the budget, and taxes is not as challenging in this regard (and it can help prevent fiscal illusion!).

Citizen engagement may seem like an uphill battle but there are many great resources out there about how to do it, so do not loose heart!  Ultimately, it is about strengthening your community and as public servants, that is a pretty great ambition!

Come back soon for the next installment on citizen engagement!

North Carolina’s County and Municipal Fiscal Analysis Tool: Research Review

Have you ever used the County and Municipal Fiscal Analysis tool that is housed on Treasurer’s website?  It allows municipalities and counties in the state to see how they are doing with regard to financial condition and compare their performance to peers.  It has recently become the focus of new research coming from colleagues at the University of South Dakota and Indiana University.  Ed Gerrish and Luke Spreen presented their research on our benchmarking tool earlier this month at the Public Management Research Conference and it is forthcoming at the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.  In this Research Review I am going to discuss their research and pull a few findings that are especially notable for those of you that work in budgeting and finance.

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It was an (im)perfect illusion: Fiscal Illusion and You

Fiscal illusion, sounds catchy doesn’t it?  Does it sound more like something you would read about on an ophthalmology website than a blog on taxes?  Well, that is where you are wrong.  Fiscal illusion is a hypothesis surrounding the notion that citizens systematically misunderstand their true tax burdens and the benefits they receive from government-provided services. In other words, they do not understand how much they pay in taxes or the value of the services that government provides.

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Crowdsourcing for Local Governments: Research Review

Research Review is a place for me to bring you academic research that I think might be of interest or relevant to you all.  It is not necessarily the Cliff notes of the paper, but it will present some key findings or insights from the paper.

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