Engaging citizens in budget process strengthens democracy

How often do we hear about declining trust in public institutions? According to a recent Edelman report, more than half the Australian population doesn’t trust the institution of government to govern for the good of the country. There can be serious implications for democracy when citizens no longer have trust in their leaders.

The 2015 Trust Barometer report shows that Australians’ trust in public institutions is at its lowest point since 2008, with trust in government at 48%, well below that of business at 57% and the media 51%.

The most common reason respondents gave for their low trust in government was its failure to contribute to the common good. We witnessed this following the release of the 2014/2105 federal budget and the public backlash over funding priorities, which led to further lowering of public trust in the capacity of government to govern for all Australians.

Public trust can be a powerful ally but deadly foe and if government wants to re-build trust, they must adopt specific attributes to do so. Key among those is a transparent and open decision-making process. One way to achieve this is by involving the public in decisions such as the allocation of public spending. It gives constituents a say in the funding priorities that directly affect their lives and helps them better understand competing priorities.

The benefits of engaging citizens in the allocation of public spending, or participatory budgeting, are many. It is practiced in a range of global cities including New York and Paris, and has been implemented in Melbourne as a way of deciding that city’s funding priorities.

The way it worked was council engaged residents and business owners to make recommendations on a $5 billion dollar strategic plan for council. Often there is skepticism around the ability of community members to get these decisions right. However, the citizens’ jury group soon came to grips with the range of complex spending priorities and successfully negotiated a sensible result. Importantly, after following the process the group reported increased levels of trust and confidence in the council and the direction in which it was advancing.

In addition to face-to-face meetings, technological advances have brought powerful new tools and approaches that are able to reach greater and more diverse audience members. What has proved most successful is combining the use of old and new technologies to raise awareness about the budget process, spending choices and challenges, and engaging the community in the process. This can only strengthen trust in institutions, good governance and the legitimacy of the democratic process itself.

All states and territories in Australia are now engaging the community online and the approach has brought many benefits. Canada’s sixth-largest municipality, Mississauga, opens up $260 million of its annual budget to resident opinion each year. Most recently it included a new online engagement tool, as well as previously used communication methods of social media, its newsletter, advertising, media material and public forums.

The move to a modern, technical approach produced remarkable outcomes: according to the council more than 2000 people used the online tool to record their spending priorities, while engagement indicators on the city’s website showed that twice as many people were spending more time reading the budget material compared with the previous year. Council staff also received nearly 700 additional written comments of endorsement from people who had used the online service, such as:

“Very good mechanism to give the average tax payer the reigns and understand how complex budgeting can be. Kudos!”

“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to voice our opinions on the budget.”

Over in the US, community participation in government budgeting occurs in the cities of New York, Chicago and Vallejo, California. Perhaps this provided an impetus because last year participatory budgeting gained high-level endorsement after President Barack Obama committed to adopting the process at a federal level “to help determine local investment priorities; and help educate communities on participatory budgeting and its benefits.”

Involving community members in the budgeting process is growing as a means of achieving positive results for community members and governing bodies. These achievements are ever-more possible with the development of new and innovative tools for digital public engagement. With financial and other resources becoming increasingly scarce, government and citizens alike can benefit from increased public awareness about the budgeting process and by directly involving community members in making decisions about how taxpayer money is spent on the projects and services that affect their everyday lives. Such practices are shown to directly contribute to improved levels of public trust in government. This can only strengthen democracy.

Read more at The Mandarin: Staying engaged when your agency is restructured (again)

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