Category: Citizen Engagement

Consulting with Citizens

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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. 

The fact that government officials still retain control over the agenda is the primary difference between consultation and the final type of engagement, active participation.  Within consultation officials have identified key areas they would like feedback on and it will still involve information sharing in almost all cases.  Officials will set the stage, define the question and the background needed to understand the issue, and then solicit feedback on a (typically) limited element of the problem.

A typical example of consultation is providing citizens with venues (such as public hearings and town hall meetings) where information is shared and citizens are given opportunities to give leaders their opinions and suggestions.  An additional benefit, beyond information sharing, is that this method requires limited time and money on the part of the local government.  Aspects of this form, like town halls and hearings, align with practitioners and elected officials, but generally this is closer to the practitioner view of citizen engagement where they are looking to inform and create community liaisons.   Once again, like information sharing, a form of consultation is required by state law.  There must be a budget hearing where the proposed budget is presented and citizens have the opportunity to comment on it.  While the scope of these budget hearings is often the entire budget, there are often specific issues that citizens will be more interested in and that officials will be more interested in explaining, discussing, and receiving feedback on.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from our neighbors to the north.  Fairfax County, Virginia asked its citizens to create a better budget a few years ago.  Citizens were able to change key spending areas (with an increase or decrease) and then were asked to balance it either through cuts (because let’s be honest, most people have some key areas they think deserve more money) or tax increases.  It was a great tool for information sharing and for consultation.  Why consultation?  Because if citizen’s chose to share their choices with the county, then county officials had a lot of information about citizen priorities and preferences!

While this process can be very informational for local leaders, they should be aware that they will likely still hear from a segment of the population that may not be representative of the population as a whole.  Therefore leaders need to balance what they hear with what they believe are the needs of the greater population.  Establishing this balance is no easy task and requires dedication by elected officials and practitioners. This is one reason I advocated for using a multitude of methods to reach and engage with citizens in an earlier blog.  If you are relying heavily on hearings and those occur on weeknights people who work evening shifts or have lower access to transportation may not be able to go.  Similarly, parents of young children may also find it difficult to attend evening meetings.  This is one reason for the growing use of electronic engagement which overcomes many of these hurdles since computers and smart phones are becoming more universal, but there are still issues of language barriers, access, to name a few.  And once again this is implying that there is equal interest across groups in engaging, which is unlikely in most communities.  So it is not just about providing access, but being mindful of the voices you are hearing and those you are not.  Once again, this could be with regard to income, race, gender, language, age, political leanings, etc.  It is a complicated puzzle, but an important one to be mindful of.

Another caution with regard to consultation is it is ill-advised to solicit input from citizens if there is no really intention to use it.  It makes the process more frustrating for citizens and it may even cause them to lose faith in their government.  Beyond that it is a waste of both government and citizen resources.

Engaging our future: A guide to going into the classroom

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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.

Alright, maybe not that young!  That being said, we have a captive audience with school-aged children that I think we could take better advantage of.  Maybe it is because I grew up in the generation of D.A.R.E. classes or because I volunteered for Junior Achievement in grad school, but I believe in the power of reaching out to kids to teach them about important civic principals like budgeting and government.

That being said, I had never taught kids before (other than with Junior Achievement and a 30 minute lesson on taxes I taught to my son’s 2nd grade class in May—ask me about our discussion of backpacks full of garbage next time you see me) and felt uncomfortable making this recommendation without having actually seen how it would work to talk to school age kids about government and budgets.  So, I went out and took two weeks and taught kids about government and budgets.  I had rising 6th and 7th graders for a week and rising 4th and 5th graders for a week.  I had them for almost 8 hours a day for a full week.  Let me just say, by then end I was hoarse and worn out!  It was great though and I learned a lot about working with those age groups and am going to share some of those lessons here.  My hope is that it will inspire some of you to consider going into local schools and take advantage of them being required to show up and listen.  We can engage and help encourage them to become engaged citizens.

I am also working on preparing some basic materials that I will share for you to build off.  You will of course want to customize them for your community, but it will at least be a starting point and I am HAPPY to help you figure out what is best!  Please do let me know if this is something you are interested in.

So, some lessons.  First and foremost, it was a blast.  Both age groups were made up of wonderful and gifted kids.  They were enthusiastic about the material and eager to engage with it.  Of course, they (or their parents) had signed up for a week on it, but this was true when I went into my son’s classroom too.  This excitement sometimes manifested itself into conversations with the children sitting next to them, interruptions, and stories/thoughts only marginally related.  Not too surprising.

That leads me to my second lesson, keep “lecturing” to a minimum.  There are A TON of activities that you can do with them depending on how much time you have with them.  One activity that I brought was the School of Government’s Budgetopolis game.  It was a huge hit.  I let each group name their city and had a “Twitter feed” on a whiteboard calling them out.  They really loved that and it helped them understand that some choices are harder to stomach than others are.  One of the other activities that we did is that I asked them all to create a personal budget.  I gave them instructions about what their budget was and what their parents would continue to pay for.  Some chose to invest it all in stocks and others all in Pokemon cards and candy.  What it did though was show them the importance of budget constraints, prioritizing spending, and recurring versus one-time costs.  It also led to a great conversation about shocks, what happens when an opportunity presents itself—where do you get your money?  Did you cut something?  The students were great and when I found ways to let them experience the lessons I could see the wheels turn and them start to really make the connections.

The third lesson is you need to understand your audience.  You need to think about the age group and their background.  What concerns will they have?  What type of government services will they likely know about and use?  Use their knowledge to your advantage.  I used the example of public transportation for the city.  About half of my students in my middle school group actively used the bus.  That made the conversation much more robust and interesting.  It also gave a face to those who would potentially be paying if the city chose to increase the fees for the students who did not ride the bus.  It benefited all of them.

In a very related lesson, lesson four, if you give them too much freedom you have no idea what you will get.  I began the week with introductions and then with an activity designed to help me introduce the wide range of what government does.  I asked them to work in pairs and come up with something that is currently hard or impossible to do and that they would like to do.  Then we would come back together and talk about if government would have a role in that.  I was imagining they would come up with something like jet packs.  We could talk about investing in research, writing laws about their use, requiring people to get jet pack licenses or permits, safety regulations, etc.  What I got, especially from the middle schoolers, was what they worried about in our modern political era.  They shared their fears and concerns about government and politics and laws.  Honestly it was poignant stuff and I took it seriously, it was also outside the scope of what I had come there to talk to them about.  I learned that that was too broad of a question/prompt.  I needed to tighten it up if I used it again in the future.  These kids are sharp and they have their own agenda.

My fifth lesson is do not hold back.  Do not shy away from teaching them difficult material.  Make sure they understand that we are going to be respectful of each other and our opinions, but they can handle real conversations about spending and tax policy.  They understood the concepts of progressive, proportional, and regressive taxation.  They understood the notion that if we spend money on streets that means we are choosing to not spend that money elsewhere, and that there are restrictions about what we can do and what we have to do.

The sixth and final lesson is to let them have their moments to be silly.  In my late elementary school students especially, they needed to vent their goofiness.  Do not fight it (fully) and let them explore it within reason.  For example, I had one who wanted to write the mayor and suggest that the city build a statue of an athlete he admired.  This suggestion was picked up by another who student who thought it should instead be Elmo and it should be made of gold.  Okay, so let’s discuss why the city may or may not be willing to do that.  What would that cost?  Is gold durable?  Would people try and steal it?  What does Elmo mean to your community?  Could that money be better used elsewhere?  It was only a five minute, at most, side conversation but it was great because the students actually arrived at those questions without me largely.  They had the tools to understand why that was a bad idea without me pushing them much.  And they got some of their silly energy out.

Tip: Videos help calm them back down—especially the younger kids.  We ended the class with how can they get involved and we talked about citizen engagement.  They knew that we were going to wrap up by writing letters to their mayor (or in some cases based on issues the President) and they were really excited to share their ideas.  However, I wanted to talk about more than just letter writing.  So we took a short video break to see the PBS “Crash Course” video on Public Opinion.

In conclusion, it was great and I think we need to be doing more of it.  Work with your schools and teachers to find opportunities to get into the classroom and teach them about government and budgeting.  I will be preparing some starter kits for lessons if people would like them. They will need to be customized for each community, but I am also happy to talk with people who would like to do this sort of work.  Please do not hesitate to reach out!

The classics: Traditional modes of information sharing

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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.

Earlier this week I covered an overview of the first phase of citizen engagement.  For my examples of information sharing I tried to highlight some ways that local governments are doing this that you may not have seen before.  However, I wanted to make sure to also cover the classics, for those who are interested.  Consider this a bonus post!

There are three common methods of information sharing employed by many local governments.  The first is simply making budget information available online, at your government offices, or at places like local public libraries.  This is a basic and, in North Carolina, a mandated way to share information and ensure basic transparency.  It also requires a commitment of very limited time and resources, which makes it attractive to many local governments.  The main shortcoming of this method is that the information will likely be too complicated and overwhelming for your average citizen to gain a great deal from it.  For example, citizens may not understand their local government’s revenue streams, debt constraints, levels of mandatory spending, specific program functions, or budget terminology.  Additionally, this approach only reaches citizens are proactive in attaining that information.

Another often used method is the creation and dissemination of budget factsheets.  A major advantage to factsheets is that they allow local governments to communicate complicated budget information in an easy to understand manner.  The primary disadvantage is that creating a brief factsheet from a lengthy budget requires significant practitioner time and it is difficult to synthesize all the necessary information and context. Practitioners tend to find it difficult, if not impossible, to provide a full picture of the budget in a single factsheet causing fears that this method may actually misinform or mislead citizens.  Additionally, it can difficult to create a factsheet that is purely neutral and does not advance arguments by highlighting certain areas of spending or choosing not to.  Practitioners should be aware of factsheet elements that may make an argument, however subtle. The use of terms such as “myth”, “truth”, and “reality” are examples of elements that subtly imply a position or advocacy.  Local governments that use budget factsheets should take the necessary due diligence to ensuring that they are producing neutral and informational factsheets.


Informational videos are emerging as another standard means for information sharing.  In today’s digital age, conveying budget information in a video is an easy and appealing approach.  Creating informational videos is a time and cost effective process producing a highly informational product.  Many municipal governments in North Carolina have public access channels dedicated to government programming.  These channels would be a good avenue for to educate the public about budget information.  Public access television still struggles with the constraint that only proactive citizens watch these channels.  This requires local practitioners to be creative in developing multiple mediums in which to disseminate these videos.  Local governments with tech savvy and creative practitioners (or college interns) may be successful in creating engaging videos and using different social mediums (consider Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter among others) to reach a broader audience.  When creating video content, make sure that the public response will be positive and not feeling that the government wasted resources on a overly complicated video.  Many local governments have been criticized by citizens for creating over ambitious videos that take resources away from other government services.

The same basic set of advantages and concerns discussed in the previous blog are here too.  So be thoughtful about when and how to use these and what other resources can be made available to reach more citizens.  Next month I will be blogging about how to reach a captive audience and share information with them!

The first step in citizen engagement: Information Sharing

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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

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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!

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

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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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