It's 2021. How will you be going about your budget consultations this fall? If you're like most city staff out there, you're probably still not sure.
The COVID 19 pandemic shifted the landscape for all kinds of public engagement by requiring cities to switch to or quickly ramp up digital engagement technologies to take the place of existing in-person consultations.
But, as vaccines and other public health measures begin to reduce COVID 19 infections across North America, local governments are now in a place to consider a hybrid online/offline engagement model for this year's budget consultations. It presents cities with both an opportunity to be more inclusive in their engagements and a challenge in that it can be hard to know where to start.
There are no experts in the new engagement model yet because it's still such early days for post-COVID public consultations. And the new engagement landscape is highly complex, with no one-size-fits-all solutions cities can use.
We get it. That's why we brought together some public engagement thought leaders for our recent webinar Budget Engagements in a Hybrid World. The panellists shared some tips and best practices they've learned from time spent at the forefront of 21st-century public consultations.
We've collected their top six nuggets of advice for you here, so you can hit the ground running when planning your fall 2021 budget consultations. Read on to learn more!
Six tips for better budget consultations
- Partner Up - The days of one-and-done transactional engagement approaches that reach the same people are over. Modern budget consultations require an intersectional approach that includes diverse groups of people in community-led learning opportunities. The key to achieving this kind of approach is building partnerships with organizations like NGOs and service providers that already have relationships with people you want to reach. It's also vital to provide partners you work with support and resources along the way while keeping expectations about timelines reasonable. Building partnerships takes time, so patience is key.
- Go Digital First - At this point, no one knows what will happen regarding the pandemic and physical distancing rules in the fall. But if you want to do better than the emergency online consultation that was your only option last year, the key is to plan for a digital-first engagement and then augment it with in-person consultations if they are possible. One good rule of thumb for this step is, the most successful and inclusive digital engagements are built from the cell phone out. That's because most people out there, even people without homes, have access to cell phones and can connect to wireless internet or text messaging. If you can have people in a room together, you should also be prepared to live stream the presentation and have materials available online so more people can access it and participate. Always think about how you can help people who can't be there in the moment have a better understanding and feel involved in the process.
- Create Meaning - By their nature, municipal budgets are big, abstract things. It can be difficult for residents to relate how all those numbers impact their daily lives. The most successful budget engagement processes tell stories that create meaning for people by showing them how the budget will influence and impact their lives. Creating meaning is an area where building partnerships can be particularly effective because partners are already working with different groups in the community and can provide the stories that will help people understand how budget decisions will affect them. This lets people access budget information in ways they find meaningful.
- Build Common Understanding - In 2021, expecting people to show up at a meeting or online engagement having read a 500-page document (or even 10 pages) and come away with an understanding of your budget isn't reasonable. Luckily, there are many digital tools that can help you help the public understand your budget and how difficult financial decisions can be. For example, Ethelo's Citizen Budget platform lets residents access budget information whenever it's convenient for them and participate in making the trade-offs necessary to balance a municipal budget. Because they see their tax dollars at work in the process, they learn how complex financial decisions can be and understand how their priorities stack up against those of the rest of the community. (You can get a comprehensive list of digital engagement tools available here.)
- Think Outside the Box - If COVID 19 has done nothing else for public engagement, it has forced cities to get creative. One example of an innovative public consultation provided by Susanna Haas Lyons is an official community plan consultation during the pandemic in Charlotte, North Carolina, held in a parking lot. It included large banners on boards that people could drive through and read and a presentation broadcast with a big screen and loudspeakers. People could indicate how they felt about something by turning on their wipers, turn signals or other automotive actions. They could text the presenter if they had a question, and they did a Kahoot quiz to get feedback. After doing a series of these consultations during the day, they finished by playing Back to the Future on the big screen for people to watch after dark.
An engagement of this scale might be a bit beyond the capacity of smaller municipalities, but the key takeaway is that by making budget consultations fun and accessible, you can get people to participate even under the most challenging circumstances.
- Keep Learning and Improving - When you're innovating and trying new things, it's essential to measure your results, learn from them and use that to improve as you move forward. To do that, you need a solid process in place that you can repeat and change as needed. And you need to choose some metrics you can use to measure your progress objectively. For example: Did you meet the goals you set out at the beginning? Did you hear from all the people you wanted to reach? Did we create a safe enough space? And what can we change to do better on each point in the future?
Need help ensuring you’re reaching a representative sample? We can help.
Focus on inclusion and ownership
Community engagement and budget consultation may have gotten a lot more complex due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's also becoming more important than ever to do well.
People increasingly want to be included in decisions that affect their lives, such as public policy. Community consultations have traditionally focused on collecting people's opinions. But the key to successful public engagement in the 21st century is helping people draw the links between their participation in an engagement and the impact their contributions have on your policies.
Modern digital tools and innovative analog engagement strategies make it easier to help residents make those connections, feel they're part of the process and take ownership of the outcomes. The tips above can serve as a guide to ensuring your budget consultations and public engagements in 2021 and beyond are as inclusive and meaningful as possible—no matter what curveballs might get thrown your way.
There's also plenty more to learn in our Budget Engagements in a Hybrid World webinar, including a list of resources. So head on over to check it out if you'd like to get even more knowledge about how to be successful in your public consultations this year.