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Citizen Engagement in Local Government Planning and Finance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erin Mullenix
August 25, 2015

Citizen participation in governance is critical to preserving both historic and modern values. It also provides an opportunity to engage in government issues that impact their lives. Finding the right balance and striking an important citizen-government relationship has been an historical challenge.

Some of the leaders that authored the Federalist Papers struggled with the concept of balancing control while preserving traditional values. For example, Thomas Jefferson was very concerned about limiting government in order to preserve individual liberties and voice in government. He encouraged the education of citizens in order to empower them to make well-informed decisions. Since the founding of the United States, times have indeed changed. However, the need for citizen input in government has remained constant.

While historic legislation such as the Urban Renewal Act of 1954, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, provides at least a minimum guidance for public participation, technological advancements have changed the face of citizen engagement. Today’s commercial operations generally depend upon electronic systems and transactions such as the Internet, email and social media. Intelligent systems and automation have changed the way we communicate. They have also opened the door to new paths of inviting citizen engagement in local government.

Blending traditional and new methods of reaching citizens is important. Without both, perhaps a significant slice of the local demographic would be excluded. Traditional public input meetings and public hearings, as well as surveys, local boards and committees can combine with newer methods of outreach like email and social media. Other methods that may blend both approaches might include engaging citizens on local commissions or advisory boards, encouraging local volunteerism, using panels to drive discussion and information gathering, collaborating with neighborhood associations, or using organized focus groups.

Although the traditional methods may be used more frequently, allowing for feedback in a variety of ways may establish a more representative sample and reach citizens from different demographics. Broad participation that includes persons of various ages, locations, income levels and other characteristics helps influence policy that will apply to the overall community. Further evaluation of the various methods can be telling as well. For example, if income or disability limits the ability for citizens to attend meetings or access electronic methods, other ways of reaching a broader and more diverse demographic and seeking greater participation can be incorporated.

Among the many areas where citizen engagement and input is critical are in local planning and finance.

The planning process involves bringing many perspectives together with a goal of establishing a clear vision on a given project. Citizen and local input offer many perspectives and raise questions of which careful consideration is important early on in a project.

Community projects are typically most successful if citizen input is included at the beginning stages. It gives citizens a chance to contribute and share concerning challenges before a project (and its expense) is encumbered. Even if some of the concerns or requests brought forth are unfulfilled, involvement from the beginning helps participants understand local limitations and why a particular solution may not meet each demand.

Clearly, local governments must weigh many competing projects vying for the same limited funding. Having a solid strategic plan and capital improvement plan will help local officials and citizens recall community priorities when it comes time to set a new budget.

Even with planning in place and a clear vision of spending, communication of local priorities is a key element. This communication goes back to the citizen engagement process and the varying methods that can achieve a broader, more inclusive communication strategy. Often, particularly in smaller rural communities, research and data can bolster local understanding and decision-making. This education is important to all of the stakeholders – elected and appointed officials, city staff and local residents.

Data can be represented visually in order to shine light on city budget conditions, allocation of tax dollars, high demands for local services, infrastructure and other critical needs. Though complex data models and graphics can be very informative, even simpler graphs and charts can display information in an inexpensive, yet effective way. Often, a simple approach is more easily understood and presents fundamental information at a glance. More detailed information can be presented alongside a concise summary that can first grab the readers’ attention.

Author: Erin Mullenix is an experienced research and fiscal analyst at the Iowa League of Cities. In her role, she provides a wealth of local government finance research and support to local communities. Her areas of study were in public administration, industrial engineering and Spanish. Erin can be reached at [email protected].

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