Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Current Practices for Involving Citizens in Local Government Budgeting: Moving beyond Method

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Current Practices for Involving Citizens in Local Government Budgeting: Moving beyond Method

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

If citizen participation is considered a desirable aspect of good government, how should it be done? This article asks what method is most effective for regular citizen input into policy-making at the local government level from the perspective of government officials using the budget process as an example. City and county managers and budget staff across North Carolina were surveyed on this issue in 1998. While there was no consensus on a practice clearly to adopt or avoid, there was a clear theme concerning approach early and often. The method is found not to be as important as how it is applied. Recommendations for practitioners and researchers are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Citizen participation has recently received wide attention in public administration from both practitioners and academics (Ebdon, 2000) (see, for example, special issues of Public Management and PA Times in early 1999. (Walters Aydelotte, and Miller, 2000; Weeks, 2000; World Bank, 1999/2000;' This interest comes at a time when the percentage of citizens who trust government is less than a third of what it was three decades ago and citizens are highly apathetic-a time of "thin democracy" (Simonsen and Robbins, 2000).

Why this renewed energy concerning an old issue? The question of how citizens should be involved in government is as old as government itself (King et al., 1998). Somonsen and Robbins (2000) have devoted an entire text to the issue of citizen involvement in budgeting and argue that the new emphasis on the traditional tensions in political science involving citizen participation (representation versus participation, politics versus administration, and bureaucratic expertise versus citizen access) has given rise to more calls to involve the public. Others argue that increased attention to citizen involvement may be due to the rise of new public administration reforms or the emphasis on government as business and citizen as owner (Beckett, 2000; Jimno, 1996).

Most of the recent material promotes more and more meaningful citizen involvement, yet it almost seems to be a disservice to the practitioner community for researchers and professional organizations to recommend a goal without providing guidance on how to reach that goal. While officials are being encouraged to involve citizens on a regular basis, they have little sense of how to involve the citizens, the extent to involve them and, most importantly, the value of doing so (Thomas, 1995; King et al., 1998). Even citizens report that they do not know how to participate (Frisby, 1996) and the impact of participation on substantive decision-making is questioned (Crosby et al, 1986).

The utility of many of the specific participation methods examined currently in the literature, such as models of deliberation democracy (Walters et al., 2000) or Citizen Survey Panels (Kathlene and Martin, 1991) and study circles (Leighninger and McCoy, 1998) is restricted to specific, legal-scale, one-time policy issues rather than annual processes.2 We have also seen a growth in public participation efforts for long-term strategic or community planning. North Carolina, for example, saw several major community-wide efforts initiated in 2000 and the first half of 2001. For participation in routine processes, we have anecdotes but only now is research coming out focusing on effectiveness of various methods (Preisser, 1997; for example, see Simonsen and Robbins, 2000; Sprague, 2000; or Monte Domecq, 1998).

A first step in understanding the effectiveness of these various methods to involve citizens in local government is simply to accurately document what is currently being used and assess what is perceived as effective by those instigating the process. That is the goal of this article. The views of budget officials across North Carolina, documented here in a statewide survey, provide us with the first comprehensive glimpse of the current state of citizen participation in an important and reoccurring local government process. …

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