Effective budget communication is a challenge for most public leaders. For one thing, the standard presentation of local government budget information can be confusing and intimidating to the average citizen. Even citizens with private-sector financial backgrounds may not understand fund accounting, municipal bond issues, property taxes, or other unique aspects of government financial management.
Turnout at public budget planning sessions and hearings is still generally low. Also, local governments have failed to fully integrate performance measurement into their existing budget processes.
The last few years have also seen great changes in the local budgeting environment and communication capabilities. The information management systems of local governments have advanced. Local governments now utilize websites and social media to communicate with their citizens. Governmental accounting systems have evolved to streamline much of the budget process, and can present data in formats that more easily understood by public leaders and citizens.
Regardless of these technological advancements, public leaders should adhere to the following principles when communicating budget information:
- Give citizens the tools they need to understand the budget process
Provide a one-page visual document that offers local residents a narrative summary of their budgets. Rather than standing in for the standard budget presentation, these documents should complement the budget and act as “how-to” manuals. Also, leaders need to also provide a clear and concise budget calendar posted to the entity’s website. This calendar should be clear and provide a general sense of the time and duration of its key aspects. The goal of the calendar is to show that while departments are working to develop their budget requests, public leaders are meeting with departments and constituents to get a sense of budget priorities. Meanwhile, the public is encouraged to attend stakeholder meetings and working sessions when applicable.
- Present budget information in context
Public leaders must first illustrate the “tax value” for an average homeowner. Such illustrations are designed to give taxpayers some sense of the wide range of services that their tax dollars provide, and of how the scope and quality of those services can change in response to alterations in taxing and spending priorities. Such figures can be compiled and presented by virtually any jurisdiction. Even in jurisdictions with high property taxes, a homeowner’s property tax liability is likely to be smaller than certain typical monthly household expenses. Providing a breakdown of the services that the “monthly” tax bill pays for will help in communication to the public. Graphic illustrations that show comparisons across nearby jurisdictions can provide additional context to constituents.
- Employ strategies to foster two-way communication with citizens
Encouraging public participation in the budget process is to provide a variety of venues so that different residents will be able to participate in ways that they feel most comfortable. Face-to-face communication remains the most effective way for citizens and government officials to work through complicated budget issues. However, meetings are unlikely to attract a broad and representative group of citizens. Local governments should engage residents through social media, suggestion boxes, and online surveys.
The final, and perhaps the most often overlooked, aspect of citizen communication about budget issues is the discussion about what happens after the budget has been adopted. It is only recently that local governments have come under increased pressure to provide information about budget variances, midyear budget amendments, the shifting of budget resources to other programs or line items, and other instances where budgeted resources deviate from their actual use.
To contend with this challenge, government entities have started using interactive online platforms to make budget data publicly available. These web-based tools emphasize an intuitive and flexible graphical presentation of budget data that users can manipulate to show revenues and expenditures for different years and different departments.
Charles Lewing is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. A Louisiana native, he graduated from McNeese State University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Finance. He later earned his MBA in 2001. He relocated to Houston, Texas and worked in various finance and accounting roles for number of healthcare organizations. In 2016, he relocated to West Texas to pursue a career in public financial leadership. He currently serves as the Reeves County Auditor. Charles is very passionate about inclusive management, LEAN six sigma, and improving operational efficiency through leveraging technology. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time in the outdoors and reading spy novels. You can read his posts here.