Article News from the Institute for the Local Government Madeline Henry

Engaging Your Community in the Budgeting Process

Madeline Henry is public engagement program coordinator for the Institute for Local Government and can be reached at

Each year, cities throughout California face tough budgeting decisions. These are among the most important decisions cities make. The budget sends a strong message about the city’s priorities. As such, it is essential that the community is involved in the budget’s development and understands the necessary tradeoffs and compromises made.

Benefits of Public Engagement in Budgeting

When communities are engaged in the budgeting process, they have a better understanding of the process and how budget allocations are made. This increases the transparency of the city’s finances, promotes greater trust and confidence in the city’s decisions and builds a stronger comprehension of budgeting choices, taxes and public benefits. A 2013 survey conducted by the Center for California Studies shows that when people are less informed and disengaged, they are more likely to believe that the tax rate is too high.

Through public engagement, cities improve their understanding of the community’s needs, values and priorities. Using this information, decision-makers allocate scarce taxpayer dollars to services, programs and facilities that contribute significantly to the community’s quality of life.

Tools to Engage Your Community

Public engagement can take many forms.

Surveys. Surveys provide insight into the public’s budgeting priorities and opinions at a specific point in time. They are often combined with educational materials.

Advisory Boards, Commissions and Committees. These groups can provide a fresh perspective on budget priorities and ideas and increase the transparency of the budgeting process.

Workshops. Budgeting workshops allow a larger portion of the public an opportunity to comment on budget priorities and goals. Such workshops also provide a way to educate the public about the budgeting process and share the city’s perspective on key budget-related issues.

Deliberative Forums. Using a consensus-based approach, deliberative forums are more intensive and typically include multiple workshops, a variety of engagement processes and a longer time frame.

Online Forums. Residents can create their own budgets representing their priorities and tradeoffs using online tools provided by the city. These tools are also used to educate the public on city costs and budgeting choices.

The Institute for Local Government (ILG) offers a variety of resources to help with the budgeting process:

  • Public Engagement in Budgeting describes how to engage the community in the budget process and features reasons to include the public, tips on asking the right questions and strategies for sustaining public engagement;
  • A Local Official’s Guide to Public Engagement in Budgeting provides an overview of six engagement approaches, multiple case stories, strategies and tips to improve public engagement efforts; and
  • ILG’s Budget Tool Box outlines a number of ways local officials can enhance community involvement, including budget education and outreach, surveys, workshops, advisory committees, deliberative forums, participatory budgeting and working with existing neighborhood councils and committees.

To view these resources, visit For more information on inclusive public engagement, visit

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Western City
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