By Katya Spear | Managing Director ∙ Mayors Innovation Project
Engaging community in the process of financial decision making and increasing transparency around how the city spends money can help build community trust, increase buy-in, and even boost fiscal health. The historic influx of federal dollars to cities in recent years – along with a host of new tools and applications to help you engage, share, and report results – offers a great opportunity for cities looking to start or advance this work.
Trust is the foundation of a functioning democracy and helps communities feel empowered to engage meaningfully in civic processes. Though studies have typically shown stronger levels of trust in local government compared to federal government, trust remains difficult to build and easy to lose. At the MIP Summer 2023 Meeting in Scranton, Shayne Kavanagh, Senior Manager of Research and Consulting at the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), shared that strong levels of trust benefits local government in a number of ways, for example making residents more willing to pay taxes, volunteer, and work with government to solve community challenges. Establishing and strengthening a culture of transparency around city finances is an important trust building activity for city leaders.
Prioritize transparency and accountability
Prioritizing transparency starts from the top. Nearly every best practice example starts with a commitment from the mayor or city manager. One way city leaders can show their commitment to transparency is by creating or strengthening open data policies, which direct agencies and departments to publish timely and machine-readable data. Strong open data policies can have a number of co-benefits, from increasing government efficiency, to improving interdepartmental collaboration, to fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the community that can drive civic engagement and economic development.
During the MIP Summer Meeting, Mayor Miro Weinberger (Burlington, VT) described how his administration established the City’s first ever open data policy to support inclusion, transparency, and accountability. Since then, the City has also moved to televise budget meetings and post the city’s check register online. Mayor Weinberger credits this commitment to transparency for the city regaining its AA credit rating after years of financial issues.
The other critical component to establishing effective open data policies is to directly provide opportunities for community members to meaningfully engage with published data. Under Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broom’s leadership, the Baton Rouge, LA, established the Citizen Data Academy, which helps residents access, download, and use the data provided by the city.
Engaging early and often in major processes
The city budget is a reflection of the city’s values, and is a great opportunity to enhance transparency and engagement. Cities like St. Paul, MN, Charlotte, NC, San Antonio, TX, Fort Worth, TX, and Kansas City, MO are scaling up their community engagement on the budget process through a mix of public meetings, resident work sessions, surveys, and budget simulation tools.
Other cities, from Nashville, TN to Hartford, CT, have implemented Participatory Budgeting (PB), which allows community members to both generate spending proposals and then vote on how a portion of the budget is spent. Strong PB programs can increase communication between residents and policymakers and equip residents with the necessary knowledge and skills to better understand and engage in government processes.
Durham, NC has one of the most robust PB programs in the country. At the MIP Summer 2023 Meeting, Andrew Holland, the City’s Assistant Director of the Office of Performance and Innovation, shared that Durham’s use of budget delegates – volunteers that help research, evaluate, refine and prioritize project proposals through the process -to support their PB process has increased the quantity and quality of engagement processes citywide. As an added co-benefit, a number of delegates, having learned more about the process, have now gone on to recruit others and to serve on city boards and commissions.
Outside of the budget, other major planning or funding processes can serve as a catalyst to kickstart or bolster engagement and transparency efforts. Many cities, including Blacksburg, VA and Milwaukee, WI, strengthened their engagement and transparency efforts around American Rescue Plan Act funding and reporting by surveying community members about investment priorities, publishing the results of that feedback, providing opportunities for continuous engagement, and displaying actual spending in a dashboard to create accountability.
Leveraging data and visualization tools
There is a suite of new and evolving tools that mayors and cities can use to increase both engagement and transparency.
Mayor Paige Cognetti (Scranton, PA), our Summer Meeting host, shared that tools like OpenGov’s procurement and permitting platforms have made city licensing, permitting, and, procurement efforts more transparent, more equitable, and more accessible to contractors and local businesses along with making RFPs and project bids accessible to the public. It has also had co-benefits to the city, including reducing wait times for permits and giving the city data on the amount of time such processes take. Mayor Cognetti in part credits the city’s overall reorientation towards building trust and creating processes for fiscal transparency for its recent exit of Act 47 status – a designation of financial distress for Pennsylvania cities – in 2022.
OpenGov also offers Open Checkbook, used by the City of Milwaukee, to help boost transparency. Tools like the Budget Simulator (which asks community members to navigate the trade offs required to put together a budget) and Taxpayer Receipt (which offers community members a receipt for what their tax dollars are being spent on), from Balancing Act, have helped many cities increase the scale and depth of community engagement and transparency around things like budgeting and fiscal spending.
As a city leader, you can support public engagement and build trust by establishing or strengthening your commitment to transparency and accountability. To access more examples and resources to support you in getting started, visit:
- In Durham, Participatory Budgeting Brings Power to the People, IndyWeek, 7.31.23
- Scranton’s Story of Resiliency, PA Department of Community and Economic Development, 7.14.22
- Rethinking budgeting: An idea whose time has come, Western City, 2.1.23
- You can view the slide deck and Briefing Book materials and from the Fiscal Transparency panel at the MIP Summer 2023 Meeting here.