Category: Citizen Engagement

Citizen Engagement Tools: Online Budget Simulations

Blog post by Whitney Afonso, Zach Mohr, and Scott Powell

Questions for Practitioners:

  • When (as in time of year) should you engage citizens in budget simulations?
  • Can I expect trust in our government to increase if we engage citizens in budget simulations?
  • How do starting budget conditions affect revenue and expenditure preferences, and what role do deficits, surpluses, and balanced conditions play in shaping these preferences?
  • In what ways can local government practitioners enhance the design of budget simulations based on the findings, and what considerations should they take into account when implementing such simulations to engage citizens in the budget process?



In the rapidly evolving landscape of budget engagement, online budget simulations have gained prominence. This blog addresses the increasing use of these simulations, particularly in local governments, and emphasizes the need for a thoughtful evaluation of design choices. While previous studies focused on federal budgets, this blog delves into municipal budget simulations, posing the question: does beginning the simulation in balance, deficit, or surplus affect respondents’ engagement and budget preferences?

The blog post summarizes an article published in the journal Public Budgeting & Finance.  We also discuss findings that were not presented in the article that suggests that starting the simulations in deficit really does not affect trust. The blog is useful to anyone that is looking to think more deeply about how to set up an online budget simulation.  They may also be useful to those that want to do experiments in budget and finance settings, which have some important practical challenges.

The findings from the research are highly relevant to local government budget practitioners who wish to engage citizen to participate in the budget process. As budgeting preferences are shown to be a function of design, budgeteers should think critically about the design of their simulations.  Specifically, we think that starting from a small budget deficit position, such as the level of inflation, may be the best way to practically get more engagement with the budget simulation, but this may influence the budget outcomes from the simulation.  At any rate, a choice on how to start the simulation must be made.

Summary of the Article

While traditional in-person engagement has been the norm, the shift to online methods, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, brings benefits such as broad accessibility to the simulation and speed to complete them (although this may also be a bit of a problem).  The article first traces the evolution of online budget simulations from national to local levels, emphasizing their growth in popularity and recognition as a best practice in public engagement, with examples of awards received by local governments. The newer “dynamic” simulations, allowing simultaneous adjustments to revenue and expenditures, are highlighted for their widespread adoption and relevance for both local governments and scholars interested in testing budget engagement theories.

Behavioral Model and Hypotheses

In the article, we discuss the impact of information presentation in budget simulations on participant engagement and budgetary preferences. Referring to previous studies, we establish that the way information is presented, especially concerning cost and performance, influences budget preferences. The model proposed suggests that starting a simulation with different budgetary conditions affects participant engagement and preferences. Unlike prior assumptions of intrinsic motivation, this research explores how the simulation structure influences engagement levels, potentially influencing other perceptions like trust in the government, which we discuss more below.

Research Design and Analysis

Participants engaged in the simulation as part of an online survey experiment. The study aimed to understand how starting conditions (balanced, a 5% deficit, or a 5% surplus) influenced participant engagement, preferences, and perceptions.

Due to local leaders’ concerns about public perception, the simulation had to be conducted in a controlled lab environment rather than in the field. This field-in-lab experiment involved randomly assigning participants to different budgetary conditions, mirroring those of a nearby local government. The participants were younger and more diverse than the general population, being students from the university, thus the specific policy preferences indicated in the simulation are not generalizable to the population.

The analysis focused on three main aspects: level of engagement, budgetary preferences, and final budgetary balance. Contrary to expectations, the time spent on the simulation did not significantly differ between deficit, surplus, and balanced conditions. However, the deficit treatment significantly reduced the number of participants completing the simulation, indicating potential difficulties. The deficit treatment increased the number of changes made to both expenditures and revenues, while the surplus treatment primarily influenced changes in revenues.

Starting conditions significantly affected both revenues and expenditures. Participants tended to maintain taxes when starting in balance, reduce them in surplus, and either maintain or increase them in deficit. Expenditure changes were idiosyncratic, with deficits leading to more significant cuts.

The results partially supported hypotheses related to the size of changes and the final budgetary balance. Participants starting in deficit made larger changes to expenditures, but the final balance was only significantly influenced by the surplus condition, aligning with anchoring and status quo bias. The study sheds light on how starting conditions in budget simulations impact participant behavior, providing valuable insights for both academic research and practical applications in local government budget engagement.


The experiment demonstrates that different starting conditions significantly impact engagement and budgetary preferences. Two out of three engagement outcomes were influenced by starting conditions, indicating their substantial role in shaping participant behavior. The deficit condition particularly amplified cuts to services like the police, suggesting that unpopular services might be more vulnerable during financial downturns. Despite the expected increase in time spent on the simulation due to varied starting conditions, time was not significantly affected, potentially influenced by the participants’ choice to avoid difficult tasks.

The deficit condition reduced the likelihood of participants completing the simulation, highlighting cognitive limitations and avoidance of challenging situations. This finding has practical implications for practitioners, emphasizing the trade-off between obtaining more information through deficit starting conditions and the decrease in completions. Future research could explore predictors of completion, such as math literacy, to enhance engagement. Additionally, practitioners may need to consider when to run simulations, as participants’ responses could vary depending on the budget preparation cycle.

Observations of “chunking” behavior in deficit conditions, where participants made larger changes, suggest a dynamic relationship between engagement and budgetary preferences. The study encourages further behavioral theory development in the context of budget simulations.

The research contributes to understanding individual psychological processes like anchoring, loss aversion, and decisional inertia in budget engagement, offering insights for practitioners on designing effective simulations. Practical implications include adjusting starting conditions based on desired outcomes and considering the impact of performance information on budget engagement. The study advocates for more field experiments and “field-in-lab” experiments to refine the choice architecture of politically sensitive topics like budget simulations, enhancing the usability and effectiveness of engagement efforts. Overall, the findings underscore the importance of behaviorally informed changes in shaping public engagement and preferences in budget-related decision-making.

The Simulation’s Effect on Trust

One of the things that was particularly important to our local government partner that we were helping to test the effect of starting position was to make sure that this did not have an effect on citizen’s trust.  The city had carefully maintained its well earned reputation for being a good steward of taxpayers money and it did not want to see that reputation tarnished because citizens’ were asked to do a budget simulation that started in deficit.  This was a major reason that we ran the simulation on students where we could properly debrief them that the scenario was not real and we took out all mentions to this specific city in the simulation.

We also saw that it was an opportunity to test the effect of the simulation and the simulation starting position on the outcome of trust in local government.  So, we actually designed an experiment within the experiment that would look at the effect of seeing no simulation relative to seeing a simulation.  We also are able to see if the effect of the treatment of balance, deficit, and surplus had an effect on trust.  So, the experiment participants were first given a series of demographic questions and a question about trust in different levels in government, they were then randomly assigned into one of the four treatments shown in figure 1 and were asked to complete the simulation, and then the participants were asked about their level of trust in government again.  So, this can be treated as either a between subject or pre-post design.

Figure 1: The four treatment conditions


It really doesn’t matter, though, how we analyze the data because there was no statistically significant effect of the simulation on trust.  There was likewise no effect between the different starting treatments on the levels of trust between the treatments or the change in the trust.  Put simply, starting a budget in deficit is not going to influence the level of trust – at least as we measured it.  One of the things that we are doing with future surveys is looking at whether the simulations had effects on other perceptions about the government.


The results of the published study and the results that we are presenting here suggest that there are only minimal negative effects of starting a budget in deficit.  Most importantly it may modestly reduce the number of completions.  However, starting the budget simulation in a small deficit – such as the current rate of inflation – may lead the respondents that complete the budget to adjust more types of revenue and expenditure and provide budgeteers with more realistic information about how citizens would balance the budget.  Starting the budget simulation in deficit is also found not to reduce trust.  Future research is ongoing about the responses to different levels of deficit (2.5%, 5%, 7.5% or 10%) and effects on other perceptual outcomes.  We would invite the budget community to propose other types of experiments that they would like to see researchers address and the research community should continue to work with local governments to test their most promising behavioral changes to these simulations.


Citation to journal article:

Mohr, Zach, and Whitney Afonso. “Budget starting position matters: A “field‐in‐lab” experiment testing simulation engagement and budgetary preferences.” Public Budgeting & Finance (2023).

Citizen Engagement: Active Participation

Local governments in North Carolina are required to engage citizens in their budget process by following the guidelines set forth by the Local Government Budget and Fiscal Control Act. This act requires that local governments provide opportunities for public input and involvement throughout the budget process, including public hearings, workshops, and other forums for community feedback. The local government must also make the budget and related documents available to the public for review and provide a written summary of the proposed budget. Furthermore, the budget must be advertised in the local newspaper, and the public must be given an opportunity to comment on the budget before it is adopted.

In addition to these legal requirements, many local governments in North Carolina have taken further steps to engage citizens in the budget process. For example, some governments hold community meetings or town hall events specifically to discuss the budget and gather feedback from citizens. Others may use social media platforms or online surveys to reach a wider audience and gather input from those who cannot attend in-person meetings. By involving citizens in the budget process, local governments can ensure that the budget reflects the needs and priorities of the community and fosters a sense of transparency and accountability.  In previous posts (for example: here, here, and here), I have discussed citizen engagement in the budgeting process.  In general, these discussions go well beyond what is required by the state in terms of citizen engagement.  In this post, I will discuss the third and final “phase”, active participation.   Active participation is achieved when government and citizens collaborate on a set of policy issues and citizens are actively able to shape policy and outcomes.

Governments, especially local governments, around the world are increasingly turning to active participation methods like participatory budgeting (including Greensboro and Durham) and citizen advisory boards to engage with citizens and foster greater public participation in decision-making processes. These methods are designed to ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard, and that governments are accountable to the communities they serve. In this blog post, we’ll explore the benefits and concerns of these methods, as well as best practices for their implementation.

What is PB? - Participatory Budgeting Project

Benefits of Active Participation Methods

Active participation methods like participatory budgeting and citizen advisory boards have several benefits. First, they promote greater transparency and accountability in government decision-making. By involving citizens directly in the decision-making process, governments can demonstrate that they are responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.

Second, these methods can help to build stronger communities by fostering greater civic engagement and participation. When citizens feel that their voices are being heard and that they have a say in how their tax dollars are being spent, they are more likely to be invested in the success of their communities.

Third, active participation methods can help to identify and address issues that may not be immediately apparent to government officials. By involving citizens directly in the decision-making process, governments can gain a better understanding of the needs and priorities of their communities, and develop more effective policies and programs as a result.

Rainy Day Bus Riding Survival Guide

Concerns and Drawbacks

Despite the many benefits of active participation methods, there are also some concerns and drawbacks to consider. One concern is that these methods can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Participatory budgeting, for example, requires significant staff time and resources to manage the process and ensure that it is fair and transparent.

Another concern is that these methods may not always be representative of the broader community. For example, citizen advisory boards may be dominated by certain interest groups or demographics, which can skew the priorities and perspectives represented in the decision-making process.

Finally, there may be concerns about the efficacy of these methods. While participatory budgeting and citizen advisory boards can help to identify community needs and priorities, they may not always result in the most effective policies or programs. Additionally, there may be questions about whether the decisions made through these methods are binding or simply advisory.

How to Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis for Important Decisions - Lucrum Consulting, Inc.

Best Practices for Implementation

To ensure the success of active participation methods, governments should follow best practices for implementation. These include:

  • Clearly define the goals and objectives of the process. Governments should be clear about what they hope to achieve through participatory budgeting or citizen advisory boards, and ensure that these goals are aligned with broader policy objectives.
    • This includes not asking for feedback and input that your jurisdiction does not have a plan for using and/or acting on.
  • Develop a transparent and inclusive process. Governments should develop a process that is transparent, fair, and inclusive, and ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate.
    • This often means having several avenues for citizens to participate.
  • Provide adequate resources and support. Governments should provide adequate resources and support to ensure that the process is well-managed and that citizens have the information and tools they need to participate effectively.
  • Incorporate feedback and evaluation. Governments should incorporate feedback and evaluation into the process, and use this feedback to refine and improve the process over time.


Active participation methods like participatory budgeting and citizen advisory boards are powerful tools for engaging citizens and fostering greater public participation in decision-making processes. These methods have many benefits, including greater transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. However, there are also concerns and drawbacks to consider, including resource constraints, representativeness, and efficacy. By following best practices for implementation, governments can ensure that these methods are successful in promoting greater public participation and achieving policy objectives.

A Reappraisal Citizen Advisory Committee, would it work?

How might a citizen advisory committee aid in the reappraisal process? In the SOG publication, “Creating and Maintaining Effective Local Government Citizen Advisory Committees, Upshaw, 2010″, here is the introductory reason to have CACs:

When communities face complex issues affecting large, diverse groups, citizen engagement leads to people being better informed, better able to collaborate with others, and more active in addressing issues that affect them. By sharing responsibility, local officials increase opportunities for citizens to contribute to the common good.

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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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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. Continue reading

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.*** Continue reading

Do cities and counties circumvent state policy? One potential mechanism.

Cities and counties are constructs of their respective states. Counties are almost always created by state constitutional decree. Cities are municipal corporations created by state legislative action. Regardless of the method of creation, states exercise significant control over what cities and counties can and cannot do. From the taxes levied to debt issuances to services that can or cannot be provided, the state determines the role of local governments within its borders. States have been pre-empting local policies at an increasing rate. The National League of Cities has documented a number of these actions. Popular targets are restrictions locally imposed minimum wages (24 states), paid leave (18 states), and public provision of broadband internet (17 states). Of these three, North Carolina is included in all. There are many other areas where states have been pre-empting local actions. This top-down view suggests that local governments have little ability to chart their own course. However, this isn’t quite right. There are many ways that cities and counties push back against state policy. In the news now, Sanctuary Cities in Texas are pushing back against new laws restricting their actions. This is a highly visible example; however, cities and counties often have other options that are less visible.

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