Local Government Finance and Budgeting 101: Encouraging Meaningful Citizen Participation through Education

Article excerpt

Most citizens have little knowledge about local government budgeting and its impact on their communities. This may be driven by the fact that over the last few decades, the American public has grown increasingly apathetic to political affairs and civic involvement. A recent Gallup poll showed that public trust in state and local government has declined in the last five years, due largely to the slow economy and its negative effect on budgets. (1) To counter these trends, many local governments are strategically engaging the public in local affairs through citizen education. Governments of all types and sizes are now using a variety of strategies--including newsletters, annual reports, radio programs, call centers, and high school civic classes--to develop an informed citizenry that is both interested in and capable of contributing to local policymaking.

Citizen education serves an important function in a democracy, especially in a large and complex society such as ours. Access to information is necessary for citizens to exercise political power and participate in public affairs. Citizen education provides people with the tools to understand and influence the decision-making process. Evidence suggests that when citizens participate in government activities, they are more likely to view the government as trustworthy and responsive to public concerns. (2) Ultimately, citizen education can strengthen collaboration between citizens and the government by promoting awareness and communication.

Contrary to popular perceptions, a budget is more than just a bunch of numbers; it is one of the most important public documents produced at the local level. By allocating public resources, it determines the direction, priorities, and goals of the community. Budgeting has historically been the domain of senior administrators, finance officers, and budget analysts, many of whom believed that the technical details of public finance and accounting were too complicated for average citizens. As a result, citizens were often excluded from the budgeting process until the outcomes had already been determined. This model has shifted dramatically over the last 30 years. The new model of public administration is based on the assumption that given adequate information, citizens can develop enough knowledge of government finance to effectively participate in the budgeting process.

This article discusses four ways local governments are educating citizens about budgeting: budgets-in-brief, the Internet, public access television, and citizen academies. These methods vary in terms of the time and effort they require from citizens and the types of media or technology employed. While these methods represent just a few effective strategies for educating citizens, they illustrate the range of strategies local governments are using to reach their diverse constituencies.

BUDGETS-IN-BRIEF

For citizen education to be successful, local governments must provide information that is clear and easy to understand. Also known as popular budgets, budgets-in-brief provide a concise overview of the annual budget and its key issues. Many citizens think budgets are too boring or complex to read and understand. Budgets-in-brief are an attractive alternative, because they are written specifically for a lay audience and focus on the most relevant aspects of the budget. These reports vary greatly in length and detail, but they typically include most, if not all, of the following components:

* Background information and demographics

* Discussion of local economic conditions and macroeconomic trends affecting the budget

* Organizational chart or overview of local government structure

* Statement of mission, goals, or objectives

* Operating budget--breakdown of revenues by source, breakdown of expenditures by function, descriptions of programs and services, general fund balance

* Capital budget--breakdown of revenues by source, summary of capital projects and their costs

* Details on property taxes, including total assessed valuation and rates

* Debt service funding

* Staffing information

* Historical comparisons of revenues, expenditures, property taxes, staffing levels, etc. …

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