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Successful Collaboration in the City of Hampton, Virginia Budgetary Process

“Borrowing trouble and just increasing our workload!” That is a common passing thought when governmental entities consider expanding upon their use of social media to encourage public engagement and participation in governing practices. An area considered to be the most politically charged and least amenable to significant change with public input is the budgetary process.

The City of Hampton, Virginia has been at the forefront of developing innovative methods by which to gather citizen input in their yearly budget process. They have done so using surprisingly fewer resources than expected and have garnered several awards in recognition of their success.


The “I Value” campaign

Much of the credit for the public support and involvement in the city’s budgetary process goes to Mary Bunting, the City of Hampton’s city manager. Hired in 2010, Bunting faced one of the most challenging budgets Hampton has seen and she sought to involve the community in the decision process. What followed was a community engagement campaign entitled “I Value” which utilized both traditional and innovative outreach methods to gather citizen input. The message was put to citizens:

The City can do many things, but we can’t read minds. We are facing budget challenges and need your input. Please tell us what you value and together we will shape our future. I value your input. What do you value?

They managed to solve a $19 million shortfall in the 2011 budget with minimal conflict due to the dynamics of this campaign.

Informal gatherings: The “I Value” campaign was an invitation to citizens to tell the city what they wanted and what they valued. Bunting knew that to get this type of input the city needed to go beyond the traditional practice of formal city council meetings. She went to the citizens by meeting with them informally where they lived, worked and socialized. These included informal chats of small groups of 10-15 at coffee shops and libraries; organizational chats at meetings of professional organizations, local civic organization meetings, and neighborhood associations; and Meet, Greet & Get Feedback sessions at places where people do their daily living, such as shopping locations and concerts.

Social media outlets: The city created an “I Value Hampton” website which provided information to citizens on the various methods they could utilize to provide input on the budget. These included calling 311 – the customer call center, email, Facebook, Twitter and comment drop boxes located around the city. Google Maps was used to show citizens the location of community engagement chat locations and drop boxes. An informational budget video was created to provide all citizens with current information on the budget process and was broadcast via the local city television channel and online.

An online survey: An online survey was made available so citizens could provide feedback at their leisure. The survey presented a list of major city services and asked whether the service was a want versus a need and if the service should be increased, maintained, reduced or eliminated. In addition, the survey asked citizens to rate the relative importance of services as compared to other services.

Online chat with the city manager: A highlight of the online presence was online chats with the city manager. Bunting held a number of scheduled online chats during the lunch hour and after work where citizens could pose questions on budget issues and receive very detailed answers in real time chats which were archived and made available on the website.

Meeting polling: At the formal budget sessions, state-of-the-art keypad technology was utilized where citizens could anonymously provide their input on various city services and receive instant feedback.

Website information sharing: Information gathered throughout the various venues was posted on the website within 24 hours of the event. The combination of in-person and online opportunities for feedback provided a greater opportunity for the city to reach various demographic groups that may not have had the ability to participate, and participate they did.


More than 2 million positive comments were received from citizens during the first campaign in 2010 with a 2,900% increase in attendance at public budget meetings. With the joint effort of city staff and the city manager, the entire campaign was financed with only $860 which was used for posters, information and comment cards, reusable drop boxes and design templates. In 2011, more than 100 citizens participated in Budget Week, a series of 5 formal public events which utilized audience polling. More than ten organization chats were hosted, 935 took the online polling survey and 86 participants logged into the first online budget chat.

It is evident, the organizational skills and motivation of the Bunting staff contributed to making the campaign such an achievement. In fact, the success of the “I Value” campaign strategy precipitated its use in the City’s community plan update effort, waterways management discussion and five-year capital spending plan.

Bunting declared, “We were going to have to make cuts – and in some cases deep cuts – in city services that residents had come to expect and appreciate. There is no city service that we do that’s not done for a good reason and there is no city service that doesn’t have a constituent group that is very passionate about it. But we didn’t get quite the push-back that I’d seen us get in the past. I think people understood the challenges because we spent so much time with them talking about the challenges.”

The campaign is now starting its fourth year and has garnered the city numerous awards: the 2011 Thomas H. Muehlenbeck Award for Excellence in Local Government, awarded by the Alliance for Innovation; the Reinhard Mohn Prize – 4th Place, awarded by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the largest private operating non-profit foundation in Germany, for their approach to civic engagement; for the 15th time, the Distinguished Budget Award, awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association, and for the last ten consecutive years the Digital Cities Designation awarded by the Center for Digital Government, which acknowledges the City of Hampton as one of the most technology-advanced cities in the nation. In October 2012, the White House selected Mary Bunting as one of 13 Champions of Change in Local Innovation for her citizen engagement efforts utilizing social media and the internet.

The public’s trust in the process of shaping the City of Hampton, Virginia budget began with the trust Bunting and her staff had in the public. Given the information by which to make better informed suggestions and engaging in a respectful and sincere effort to incorporate the voices of the citizenry in the process greatly informed the allocation of resources for the city. The public recognized the tough choices of shifting funds to meet demand and the staff realized the wealth of knowledge and sincere concern the public brought to the process made it that much more effective in creating and adopting.

“All of us – myself, my staff, the City Council, the larger community – felt that this outreach process put us all in a better place for understanding and making important decisions,” Bunting said. “That’s a healthy thing for our community.”


Authors: Pamela T. Dunning, Assistant Professor at Troy University and Pamela A. Gibson, Assistant Professor at Troy University.   


Image courtesy of http://www.ieanea.org/2011/10/04/let-your-voice-be-heard/.

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