Magazine article Public Management

NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVISM ARE NO MATCH FOR PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING: An Active Citizen Engagement Strategy Can Be a Transformative Tool That Helps Officials Better Align Budgeting Decisions with Residents' Preferences

Magazine article Public Management

NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVISM ARE NO MATCH FOR PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING: An Active Citizen Engagement Strategy Can Be a Transformative Tool That Helps Officials Better Align Budgeting Decisions with Residents' Preferences

Article excerpt

United States Vice President Spiro T. Agnew used "nattering nabobs of negativism" during the 1970 midterm congressional campaign to refer to politicians critical of Nixon administration policies. Speech-writer William Satire found "nabob," a Hindi word for governor, then added "nattering" as an offbeat adjective to make the phrase memorable.

Today, "nattering nabobs of negativism" captures the sentiment of many city and county managers--and their staffs--who are weary of the same half dozen or so residents who seem to criticize every action and decision of local government officials. It's demoralizing to be constantly under attack, whether justified or not.

Local government managers have long struggled with their proper role in ensuring democratic accountability and making sure local government is responsive to residents' preferences. In the council-manager model, the city or county manager is directly accountable to the governing body, and the governing body is accountable to the voters, mainly through regular elections.

But elections are poor signals about the preferences of electors for the specific mix and levels of services the government should deliver. Moreover, participants in elections do not usually include all eligible citizens, and local elections often have low voter turnout.

Voter turnout may be higher when it becomes a referendum on such a particular issue as whether to be a home-rule community or whether to raise taxes to fund a new county jail. But what do voters think about all of the other services a local government provides?

How many taxpayers agree that the taxes and fees they pay are reasonable for the services received? Local government budgets, unfortunately, often are prepared with uncertainties on how much residents are willing to pay in taxes and fees and for what levels of which services.

Twenty-five years of reviewing local government budgets for the Government Finance Officers Association budget presentation award suggests that resident input generally comes at the end of the budget process, when most decisions have already been made. It is the "nattering nabobs of negativism" who show up for public hearings.

Everybody knows what they are thinking, but what about the greater community? If elected officials are going to be responsive to the whole community and reflect their residents' preferences in the annual budget, they need to know what all of the residents are thinking.

Research suggests there are better and more accurate ways for staff and elected officials to discern what their residents think about the services being provided--or not being provided--and their willingness to pay for them. An active citizen engagement strategy (see Figure 1) can be a transformative tool that helps elected officials go beyond merely satisfying legal requirements to increasing legitimacy of policy decisions, better aligning budgeting decisions with residents' preferences. Engagement goes beyond participation in citizen surveys; it involves interaction and opportunity for the public to offer advice and dialogues to gather resident recommendations regarding policies. (1)

PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING

Some research suggests that public managers do not encourage dialogue and resident engagement in budgeting unless the managers believe the exercise has low costs and high benefits. (2) Engaging residents in the budget development process, however, can increase resident trust in government and support for public policies. (3)

The quality of resident participation in local government budgeting depends on the degree to which residents can engage in various opportunities (see Table 1). Each mechanism of participation, however, has its strengths and weaknesses. A consistent weakness of many formal mechanisms is that they fail to achieve genuine participation because they rarely collect input from a broad spectrum of the public. …

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