Article News from the Institute for the Local Government by Melissa Kuehne

Tools to Engage Your Community in the Budgeting Process

Melissa Kuehne is communications and development manager for the Institute for Local
Government and can be reached at

Budgeting comprises some of the most important decisions that cities make. Taking steps to share the city’s budget information with the community enables residents to:

  • Better understand the overall budget and the local budgeting process;
  • Knowledgeably discuss budget issues among themselves and with decisionmakers;
  • Understand the constraints affecting the allocation of resources; and
  • Reach more informed opinions about how limited financial resources should be allocated.

Cities can use a variety of ways to engage the community in the budgeting process. To pick the right approach, you need to consider: 

  • What type of input do staff and officials want from the public related to budget decisions — a vision, an expression of broad community values, new ideas or choices among options or ranked or unranked sets of ideas or preferences?
  • How will the public’s preferences and/or ideas be considered in final budget decisionmaking?
  • What time period and financial and staff resources can be devoted to the effort?
  • How comfortable are policymakers with public involvement in budget decisions? Are they willing to strongly consider community opinion, even if it means reducing spending elsewhere in the budget?

Explore a Spectrum of Options

Budget surveys collect public input by telephone and through mailings, online tools or in-person interviews at a community venue. Surveys can provide a relatively easy way to organize a snapshot of public opinion at any given time. Such snapshots can give decisionmakers a picture of the services that the public values most and least and the budget choices that garner varying degrees of support.

Online forums and social media allow for a virtual exchange of information and preferences. This allows you to gather input from a large number of people, at their convenience, from their home or office.

Budget workshops provide opportunities for public education, discussion and feedback on a city budget. Successful budget workshops require sound design and well-executed logistics, careful preparation of background materials, effective recruitment of participants and skilled facilitation. Budget workshops can offer the public and organized stakeholders an opportunity to question, comment on and shape budget goals and development.

Deliberative forums involve more intensive and/or longer-term facilitated processes than budget workshops. This type of engagement activity requires substantial time and resources — and the full understanding and support of elected officials and senior staff. Deliberative forums can give a significant number of community participants an opportunity to grapple with budget issues in greater depth than a shorter workshop might allow.

Advisory boards, commissions and committees also offer ways to involve residents. Community members, typically representing interests, groups, areas of expertise or geographic areas are selected to provide input on budget goals, issues, priorities and decisions. For more information, see “Finance Advisory Committees: Tips and Traps”.

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. This process can be helpful when seeking to develop extensive community involvement in budget choices, particularly when: 

  • Significant differences of opinion exist in the community about spending new tax dollars or one-time funds; 
  • Community trust in local government is low; and/or 
  • “New” revenues need to be allocated.

For more information and examples of how these tools can be used, visit