Public sector organizations across North America are facing considerable budget pressures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This may necessitate slashing funding to programs and/or increasing tax rates. That is likely to be very unpopular with your stakeholders (council, board, and/or residents). Working through these options will require careful planning, making trade-offs, and effectively communicating new realities to stakeholders to get their buy-in and earn/maintain their trust.
If you've read our Style & Substance blog articles before or attended our webinar series on best practices for communicating financial information, you know we have strong opinions on effective communication. In a time of massive budget challenges, your team's ability to communicate your message clearly and effectively is more important than ever.
Over and above what we have laid out in our articles and presentations, what can your finance or budget department do to help stakeholders understand the complex issues you are facing?
Too Much or Too Little Detail
Stakeholder engagement is nothing new. Publication of large budget documents, public meetings to discuss these documents, focus groups, and advisory committees have been utilized for decades to engage with residents to educate them and receive their feedback. These approaches are often challenged by the complexity of the topic and the time investment required to execute them. Who wants to read even a 200+ page budget book? If they do read it, the result may not be what you expect:
An implication for government transparency is that transparency initiatives that expect citizens to make sense of technical and abstract information, especially in large amounts, (such as the many line items and millions of dollars described in a typical public budget) probably face a much greater hurdle to increasing trust than their well-meaning originators thought. In fact, at worst, too much information
could actually decrease trust.
Transparency: A Means to Improving Citizen Trust in Government -
Government Finance Officers Association
As an alternative, local governments can utilize surveys or online budget tools to broaden the public meeting's reach. A classic example of this approach is the "digital budget book." These tend to be more approachable and, therefore, attractive to a typical stakeholder. This comes at the cost of the depth of detail and nuance necessary to truly educate the audience about the organization's constraints. Further, the act of merely putting a budget book online does not tackle the underlying barrier presented by large volumes of complex technical information noted by the GFOA.
What you need then is:
- the ability to reach as many stakeholders as possible,
- in a way that encourages their participation,
- focuses on educating them on the context, constraints, and challenges we face and
- solicits their feedback.
Engage Stakeholders with Budget Simulations
This is where simulations come in. As technology has evolved, simulations have proven themselves to be the best of both worlds: broad reach and accessibility to maximize participation combined with the right amount of detail and nuance.
Participants are invited to investigate the budget initially at a highly summarized level. This has the advantage of minimizing initial complexity and enabling understanding of the budget's overall state (e.g., surplus, deficit). They can drill down into more and more detail to understand the composition of the budget.
Finally and most importantly, stakeholders are asked to increase or decrease budgeted amounts by department, service area, or program based on their own priorities and preferences. You can present them with a series of options to choose between that will impact the budget. Participants attempt to craft the budget they would like to see but will regularly bump into problems. Want to triple the budget on policing? Sure! But that puts us into a major deficit. How will you fund this increase? Participants can add comments explaining their rationale. All this data is collected for the hosting finance/budget department to analyze and leverage in refining the budget.
Not having learned it is not as good as having learned it; having learned it is not as good as having seen it carried out; having seen it is not as good as understanding it; understanding it is not as good as doing it. ..He who carries it out, knows it thoroughly.
The Works of Hsüntze
Bringing your stakeholders into the budget process with simulations will allow them to understand the challenges you are facing and provide the feedback necessary to ensure you are optimally meeting their expectations.