#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Community Engagement in Budgeting

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our fifth #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Lauren Brune, Budget Analyst, City of Asheville.

The 2019 NCLGBA Summer Conference was the first one I attended since Winter 2017 and did not disappoint – it was one of the best budget conferences in my experience. I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with budget peers new and familiar from across North Carolina, and the mix of conference sessions was informative and engaging.

A common thread I noticed throughout several sessions was one that did not used to tie directly to budgeting: community engagement. This illustrates the notion of the evolving budget profession. The days of spending all day at a desk crunching numbers are gone; instead, we need to get out into our communities to forge partnerships and ensure our services are meeting stakeholders’ needs. Budgeteers must work closely with community engagement staff and management to ensure that the organization’s strategic plan aligns with community priorities, and then allocate financial resources accordingly.

One of the biggest takeaways from Brock Long’s session, “Emergency 2.0,” was how to leverage federal emergency funding through local partnerships. Brock compared emergency management to a chair with four legs: the citizenry, local and state governments, the private sector, and federal government. If any of these legs is weak, it destabilizes the chair and prevents an effective emergency response. The “emergency 2.0” approach is to create partnerships in your community to keep the chair stable. Brock mentioned several examples of how to create such partnerships before a disaster strikes, so that the machine can be put into operation immediately when necessary. He advised local governments to partner with reinsurance agencies to leverage their fund balance, which can provide more flexibility in the permissible uses of funds than federal reimbursements alone. Brock also suggested writing MOUs with local stores to provide food and supplies immediately in case of emergency. By engaging effectively with their communities, local governments can establish a robust emergency management strategy that incorporates effective preparation and response.

The community engagement theme popped up again in the “Budget Monitoring and Reporting” session from Mecklenburg County. Brandon Juhaish explained that Mecklenburg budget staff shares quarterly reports with departments and asks departmental staff for feedback to keep employees engaged in the process. The communication loop then comes full circle when budget staff incorporates departments’ feedback into future reports. This seemingly simple action works to break down silos in the organization and moves the type of engagement from information to collaboration.

The community engagement thread also wove its way into the Past Presidents’ Panel, which illustrated how the budgeting profession has evolved. When Maia Setzer offered words of wisdom to burgeoning budget professionals, she encouraged talking to customers, which I interpreted to mean internally as well as externally. Beyond communicating with citizens, community engagement could take the form of benchmarking and learning from other organizations. It was a good reminder that local governments everywhere borrow ideas from one another and that there is no shame in replicating a successful initiative in your community.

The second conference day began with an inspiring session about Fayetteville. Rebecca Jackson explained that to be high-performing, an organization must collaborate and break down silos by engaging with employees and citizens alike. Listening to customers is a behavior that all high-performing organizations have in common. By knowing what your community values, you can create a strategic plan that serves as your blueprint for successful budgeting. To close the communication loop with the public after the strategic plan is implemented, Fayetteville uses tools like the TracStat scorecard, which aligns performance measures in the organization to Council goals. The scorecard is shown in an open database so that Council and citizens can dive into performance stats and see how the budget aligns with their priorities.

The idea of community priorities informing the strategic planning process continued in the next session, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” Scott Tesh explained that in Winston-Salem, results from the citizen survey are provided to departments about their specific services, and that residents also rank departments’ services by importance. Parks & Recreation services ranked higher than anticipated in the survey, which led staff to reallocate some bond funding to Parks projects. If Council is resistant to strategic planning, it could be helpful to highlight concerns from the community rather than staff — these may be more impactful since they affect electability.

When members of the community participate in the governing process, it is important to lead them by encouraging the heart, as Rick Morse explained. Citizens will be more enthusiastic about participation when their contributions are recognized, they feel appreciated, and values and victories are celebrated. Strong recognition cultures encourage good relationships between management, staff, and the community. This idea emerged most clearly in my favorite session of the conference, “PB Durham: Humanizing the Budget Process.” Community engagement was the key to Durham’s success with participatory budgeting. The “PB Jam” (brainstorming) sessions at recreation centers and festivals, as well as canvassing, met the community where they were and encouraged maximum community participation in PB. Any Durham resident age 13+ could vote on projects, and PB was integrated into the schools’ social studies curriculum. With the online idea collection platform, Andrew Holland and Robin Baker brought technology to the people and used it with or for them if needed.

After the two-month idea collection phase, internal departments used community engagement in the proposal development process. These intensive workshops trained citizens on how to turn their ideas into actionable projects. Although the PB staff provided information and direction, they depended on citizens to push the project ideas forward. Citizens were also encouraged to spread the word about their own project ideas to increase votes. I believe this feature of Durham’s PB process was the most innovative and important to its success. By taking ownership of the projects and the voting, citizens were probably much more engaged in PB than they would be if staff had simply led the process. This recalls the idea of closing the communication loop and moving the community engagement process from informing to collaborating.

Seeing the community engagement theme throughout so many of the conference sessions reinforced the changing nature of the budgeting profession for me. I am excited to see how community engagement will play a role in future budget processes in our local governments, and I can’t wait to play host when the NCLGBA Winter Conference comes to Asheville!