Cuts have been the background to budget consultation in recent years. When cuts must be made, it’s obviously essential to engage the public in budget setting.
However it’s a worthwhile reminder that even with cuts, public sector organisations – especially local authorities, NHS, fire and police – oversee significant spending of taxpayer funds.
Public sector budgets are a large proportion of local GDP, and will remain so. They’re the means by which essential services are provided, and they can be significant drivers of employment and economic growth in an area.
Public involvement in local budget setting is both important and achievable.
I recently found three useful pieces on approaches to setting local budgets, which are shared below – followed by tips and tricks for getting the most from a budget-setting process.
Cook County (Illinois, USA)
First, a trip overseas. I found this really interesting budgeting process “Look at Cook” from Cook County (Illinois, USA)
“Every year our Cook County government budgets and spends more than $3 billion. The County’s budget impacts our lives every day. All of its funding comes from you—your sales and property taxes, your purchase fees on gas, and other goods. All of its spending exists to support you too.”
Look at Cook is a nice site showing the potential to link spending data and budget consultation. Particularly effective is the clarity of the message about the amounts spent and where they go. It would be great to see approaches like this from the UK (know any good examples?).
Back in the UK, Community Budgets have received a lot of attention recently. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have a primer on Community Bugets.
“A Community Budget gives local public service partners the freedom to work together to redesign services around the needs of citizens, improving outcomes and reducing duplication and waste.”
DCLG also have a dedicated Community Budgets site, with weekly updates on progress and development in Community Budgets.
Also interesting is this piece on place-based budgeting from Office for Public Management (OPM) – discussing localism in budget setting, and the need for strong, transparent governance.
“The basic idea of place-based budgeting is that local government has the responsibility for making decisions about how best to deploy taxpayer money and public resources….local government will need to demonstrate good governance so taxpayers know that public resources are being used properly.”
Read more about place-based budgeting on the OPM blog.
Tips & tricks for involving the public in your budget-setting process
An online process is arguably the most cost-effective mechanism to involve people in budgets. It’s convenient and easy for the public to participate in an online process, and it matches the expectation that services will be delivered online.
For the staff who run the budget consultation an online process also has several benefits, including convenience of working with the data, which is already in an electronic format. Key metrics are also available on demand during the budgeting process.
Walsall Council and South Yorkshire Police Authority both found an online process with Budget Simulator to be highly effective for engaging a wider audience with the budget process.
Online, offline, or both?
Walsall Council identified that an online process got a much higher response rate than a previous paper survey. However, it’s worth maintaining an offline process based around a paper consultation document (or printable PDF), as this provides an additional means of participating.
A paper consultation document can be made available on request to people (saving the cost of mailing it to all households). It can also be used at events and roadshows.
Budget Simulator can be provided in an offline format which matches the format of the online process, providing additional rigour and minimising the costs of data entry from the offline version.
Make sure online processes are widely accessible
There are accessibility standards that must be complied with when running a public sector process online. Failing to comply with these standards is unfair to those who need the support that the standards provide. Failing to use an accessible process exposes an organisation to legal risk as it violates equalities legislation. Failing to be widely accessible also reduces the cost-effectiveness of an online process as it limits the number of people who can participate quickly and easily.
Budget Simulator has been built in compliance with web accessibility standards (see our Accessibility Policy), and is designed to be usable by a wide range of people including those with older computers/software, those who don’t have broadband, and those who have an impairment or disability. It’s also usable on smartphones (including iPhone and Android).
We’ve been helping councils and government departments run budget consultations since 2005. Based on this experience we’ve put together a participation guide with 15 tried and tested ideas for promoting your budget consultation and encouraging people to take part.
Budget Simulator Case Studies
Greater Manchester Police Authority (GMPA) have recently completed a consultation using Budget Simulator to inﬂuence their new Policing budget in Greater Manchester for 2011/12. Read the case study.
Walsall Council recently extended their Budget Simulator license to allow local residents to have their say on spending priorities for the 2012/13 financial year. Find out more.
If you’d like a free demo of Budget Simulator, or just to discuss running budget consultations online, please call Ben or Gill on 0845 638 1848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org