Engage the community in long-term financial planning
Learn how public engagement benefits long-term financial planning and get tips about how to engage the public on municipal financial matters.
Benefits of public engagement
By offering opportunities for the public to weigh in on issues and decisions your municipality can:
- encourage dialogue, help residents better understand the complexities of local issues, inform municipal decisions and help build public support
- generate solutions that address public concerns through effective problem and conflict management
- create a sense of community pride with engagement activities that help to align the goals of the municipality, public and local organizations
- improve public trust by recognizing the value of insight and expertise from individual community members
Engaging the community can help build support for your municipality’s long-term financial plan.
To help the public understand municipal finance issues, it is important to engage them in the decision-making process early and build support gradually. For example, it may be better to seek feedback from the public on the proposed budget, rather than later in the budget cycle when decisions have been finalized. Early engagement may help to better inform council discussions and debate regarding budget matters.
Use online tools
There are a variety of online engagement techniques that local governments can use to elicit feedback from the public. For example, using a “multi-channel” approach to engage the public may help to reach people who are not typically engaged in local government decision-making processes1. Using multiple platforms will help get the word out to residents about events, proposals, meetings and workshops.
The City of Toronto uses Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and blogs to connect with Toronto residents.
Keep websites current and post official documents
Websites can make information more visible and accessible and allow staff to make changes efficiently.
The City of Brantford provides a breakdown of its annual budget on its website, with explanations on how each cent of a given tax dollar is allocated and details on the budget, by department.
Providing information about government activities is a key aspect of public engagement. Providing meeting agendas and minutes electronically or offering webinars or video conferences can help make decision making processes more visible to the public.
The City of Kingston maintains an online repository of previous budgets, audited financial statements, and information on performance measures.
In addition to traditional online engagement tools, there are many emerging technologies that municipalities can take advantage of to broaden participation. Open data, mobile applications and video technology are becoming viable options for engaging the public.
The City of Timmins has developed a municipal property tax calculator which calculates the total property tax owed based on the total assessed value entered by the user. It also shows how the user’s tax would be allocated amongst City departments, boards, and for education purposes.
Get feedback online
Online surveys can be a very helpful method of collecting input from the public as a supplement to public meetings, workshops and consultations.
The City of Thunder Bay is using an online survey to find out about how its residents use Boulevard Lake Dam and Park, which requires repairs and rehabilitation.
It is important to ensure that a municipal survey reflects the opinions of people in the community. Here are some tips to ensure that respondents live and/or use municipal services in the community
- require users to register before they can post comments on the website
- include street address as a required field in the registration form
- map comments by jurisdiction without identifying the respondent
- use analysis tools to filter the feedback
- make the information publicly available
The City of Waterloo created EngageWaterloo, an online forum that asks citizens about current municipal issues. Survey responses are publicly available, as well as information on the age, gender, location and frequency of participation of survey respondents.
Participatory budgeting is a public engagement tool which enables citizens to discuss the financial and budgetary processes of the municipality and to deliberate on issues of municipal finance, including the distribution of public resources, prioritization of services, and monitoring of public spending. This does not mean that the public will be invited to lead or participate in decision-making processes. At minimum, participatory budgeting involves public deliberation of budgetary issues in a meaningful way. Participatory budgeting can even involve members of the public making recommendations on how a certain portion of the municipality’s budget may be allocated.
For example, since 1999, Guelph residents have used participatory budgeting to allocate a small portion of the City’s budget. Neighbourhood groups share and redistribute resources for local community projects, such as recreation programs, youth services, and physical improvements to community facilities.
By engaging the public in a discussion, participatory budgeting can contribute to building recognition among the public that the municipality has a limited budget and move toward answering the question of how this limited budget should be allocated. It may also contribute to deepening the exercise of democracy by including the public in the decision-making process and strengthening local government transparency.
Deputations require organizations and/or members of the public to prepare a presentation to council and express their views in person at a council meeting. While this process has traditionally been used as a forum for the public to provide feedback on municipal long-term financial plans and is perhaps the most well-known method of communication between the public and municipalities, it is not the most accessible, inclusive or convenient method for the public.
Building public trust
Being accountable and transparent is key to effective public engagement. This builds trust between residents and their government. Local governments can strengthen that trust by communicating how public dollars will be invested, and by showing that these investments have been made strategically. Research shows that this can help to build public confidence in decision-making, including decisions on spending and investment.
The Town of Perth has an annual “report card night”, which is open to the public. Municipal department heads, including the mayor, report on their top accomplishments of the year, outline key goals and objectives for the next year and show how they support the community’s strategic plan. The annual report card night is held to help ensure transparency, enhance communication and hold municipal staff accountable for adhering to the strategic plan, goals and objectives, budget deliverables and reviewing results.
Accountability and transparency are essential to effective public engagement. Public engagement opportunities can help to encourage dialogue between the public and council, generate solutions supported by the community, and contribute to the development of a sense of community pride and public trust. To improve the public’s understanding and an appreciation for an issue, it is important to engage the public early in the decision-making process and build public support gradually over time. Accessible online engagement tools can reduce barriers to participation and aim to reach the unengaged.