Beyond the Public Hearing: Citizen Participation in the Local Government Budget Process

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This study explores the use and effects of citizen participation in city budgeting. Interviews were conducted with budget directors in 28 midwestern cities. Participation was found to affect budget decisions, but the public hearing remains the primary formal opportunity for input in most cities. Technology is increasingly being used to expand the budget information available to the public. Budget complexity and citizen disinterest were cited as the major barriers to participation. However, a number of cities have successfully used participation mechanisms in the budget development process that can serve as models for other cities.


Scholars and professional organizations strongly encourage citizen participation in the governance process. Due to the public policy decisions inherent in the budget, the budget process would seem to be a prime opportunity for citizen input. However, the limited empirical research available suggests that citizen involvement in budgeting is not widespread. Do practitioners disagree with academics on the value of citizen input? Is there an intrinsic aspect to the budget process that prevents it? Are there other reasons for the lack of participation?

This study looks at the use of citizen participation in the budget process in cities with populations greater than 25,000. It was designed to explore the following questions: When and how are citizens involved in the budget process? Why is participation not used more? What are the effects of citizen participation? The findings are based on interviews with budget or finance directors in 28 cities in four neighboring states: Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

The next section reviews the literature relating to citizen participation and budgeting. The research methodology is then described, followed by the findings of the analysis. The last section presents the conclusions.


Citizen participation has received increasing attention in the past decade. An expanded role for citizens in the governance process has been advocated by scholars (Box, 1998; King, Stivers et al, 1998; Schachter, 1997; Thomas, 1995; King, Feltey, & Susel, 1998), and by professional organizations such as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA, 1999). The emphasis on participation can also be seen through changes in administrative functions; Nalbandian (1999) found that city managers have become much more focused on community building and facilitation of participation in public policies in the past ten years.

Citizen participation is seen as a way to reduce the level of citizen distrust in government, and to educate people about government activities. The goal is for citizens to have an active role in decisions and not just be passive "consumers" of government services. This is made difficult by barriers to participation such as lack of knowledge of government, public perceptions that they do not have access or their opinions are unwanted, and citizen apathy and lack of time (Frisby & Bowman, 1996; King, Feltey & Susel, 1998; National Academy of Public Administration, 1999).

However, the positive effects of participation have been demonstrated in the literature. Citizens in cities with more participation have been found to be less cynical about local government (Berman, 1997). The city of Dayton, Ohio uses community boards to improve neighborhoods; with their support, the city has not lost a tax election in twenty years (Gurwitt, 1992). Participation benefits have been reported by both participants (Kathlene & Martin, 1991) and public officials (Watson, Juster & Johnson, 1991).

Advantages of participation vary by the type of mechanism used. Public meetings are open to all, but turnout is often low and attendees might not be representative of the community. Citizen surveys may be generalizable if done scientifically, and can provide valuable information about service priorities and issues, but question wording can affect results, intensity of opinion may not be indicated, and they can be costly. …