Atlantic Cities

To Understand the City’s Budget, Write It

To Understand the City’s Budget, Write It

In many cities, there tends to be a barrier between citizens and the officials that run the city. For Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, much of the division can be blamed on TLAs – or, as he tongue-in-cheekily explained recently, the three-letter abbreviations that dominate the language of city officials, but which aren’t often explained to the regular citizen.

To create a better understanding o the inner workings of the city, Nenshi decided to open the process up and give citizens a more detailed – and comprehensible – look at one of the city’s most important functions: creating the budget.

Last year, months before the city finalized its 2012-2014 budget and business plan, Nenshi and the city launched a citywide engagement process to get citizens to participate in drafting the sort of budget they wanted for their city, an effort dubbed “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future.”

Nenshi, speaking at the Cities Summit convention in Vancouver this week, said that the process had three goals.

"Number one was to help people feel as though they were part of the process. And I use that wording very advisedly because they already are part of the process. They have skin in the game. The decisions we make impact them," Nenshi said. “But too many citizens didn’t feel that their voices were being heard."

The second goal was to counteract those TLAs by getting city officials to better communicate to citizens exactly what they do. The city did this by creating an online budget-making tool that allows citizens to see what every department spends money on. The site was also adjustable so that citizens could see, for example, what a 5 percent cut in funds would eliminate from the parks budget, or what an extra 10 percent would add to the transportation department’s plans for the year.

That played directly into the third objective, which was to get some good ideas for the budget.

"A lot of people did this and created their own budgets," Nenshi said. But it wasn’t an outright crowdsourcing project – the budgets weren’t all averaged out and adopted, but rather served as guidance for the city’s budget crafting. Throughout the roughly 7 months in between the launch of the program and the formal adoption of the budget last November, the city of Calgary heard from 24,000 residents about the budget.

"It’s all about opening up the process. It’s not just about data, but it was about helping people get in underneath the decisions that we’re making and helping them understand the tradeoffs that we’re making," Nenshi said.

He said the process has not only helped citizens better understand government, but also helped government to better understand how to communicate with citizens.

"We used to do things like open houses and town halls when we had those discussions. And what we learned this time around is that the open houses and the town halls are the most expensive and least successful part of the process," Nenshi said.

The city only crafts its budget once every three years, but does have annual budget revisions and adjustments. Nenshi said that this massive outreach effort probably will only happen every three years, but that some of its tactics and lessons will be applicable in the off years.

Nenshi said the process was very successful in bridging the gap between citizens and government officials, and that he hopes to continue to tap into the thoughts of citizens, at least to inform their own officials decisions an policies.

"It’s still my job to make the tough calls, mine and my colleagues on council," he said. "But we make better decisions when we understand what the people we’re serving prioritize and what they really want."

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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