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Community Engagement for City Budgeting

When it comes to creating a city or county budget, there are many ways to move forward: whether it’s taking the previous year’s budget and adapting it as necessary, or throwing it all away and starting with a blank slate. There’s no “right” choice when it comes to budget type—only what’s best for your jurisdiction. However, regardless of which method you choose, budgets are ultimately created to fund services, initiatives, and programs for a city or county’s residents, and for that reason, it’s imperative to understand what your residents prioritize and need. 

Gaining that understanding in a representative manner is tricky though; community feedback has traditionally been gathered through in-person town hall meetings and phone or mail-in community surveys. Yet both of those methods tend to have low or non-representative participation in their current forms. Only 25% of adults attend community meetings. Similarly, surveys conducted by phone or mail often miss out on large segments of the population—for example, only 19.2% of adults living in rental units have a landline. Furthermore, barriers to participation such as time and language often leave out the most vulnerable residents. The result is that the voices heard and opinions shared on budgets are often those of only a select few—all too often older and wealthier—residents. So how can city and county managers incorporate community feedback into their budget processes in order to best prioritize resident needs? Below are suggestions based on different budget types.

5 types of city and county budgets and how to add community feedback to each

1. Line-item budgets

The most traditional form of budgeting for local governments is line-item budgeting. Line-item budgets tend to use the previous year’s budget as a starting point (though they don’t have to), and group each expenditure by broad subject, department, or fund. Because line-item budgets mostly rely on an already existing budget, their process is simpler and more efficient. Problematically, that efficiency can also mean they get stale. For that reason, city and county leaders who use line-item budgets should go above and beyond to include community feedback into their budget process and ensure they don’t get stuck in a rut that doesn’t reflect their residents. 

How to incorporate feedback into your line-item budget: While line-item budgets are often already mostly built by the time a new budget cycle starts, having an understanding of the topics that are most important to your community—and resident satisfaction around them—is a must for keeping your budget fresh. Zencity’s project dashboards give city and county managers the ability to track resident sentiment in an ongoing manner on specific topics. The project dashboards show the volume of discourse, which then gives a better understanding of which topics are most important to the community, as well as the change in sentiment over time, so local government leaders can see progression, and which areas need more attention. 

2. Zero-based budgets 

Zero-based budgets are the polar opposite of line-item budgets, providing local government leaders with a blank slate each budget cycle. The advantage of them is that they require local government leaders to take a fresh look at community needs each year. They also give city managers more flexibility to allocate resources as they see fit. However, without a base from which to start, zero-based budgets can be especially time consuming. 

How to incorporate feedback into your zero-based budget: One of the biggest challenges to budgeting is fully understanding where funds can make the most impact. This is especially true with zero-based budgeting, which has local governments starting with a blank slate. Here, the issues of representation and low public participation that were discussed above, become even more compounded. Zencity takes a dual approach to community engagement: First, it increases active participation through both topic-specific and resident satisfaction surveys that are distributed online, reaching members of the community that wouldn’t otherwise engage. At the same time, Zencity’s cutting edge AI and expert analysis aggregates organic online discourse on social media and neighborhood forums to identify what people beyond the 25% of residents who attend community meetings are talking about.

3. Performance budgets 

Performance-based budgeting—also called results budgeting or budgeting for outcomes—allocates funding based on expected results. The key to performance budgeting is performance management, or a real-time evaluation of the programs and initiatives being funded, to understand whether the outcomes identified are in fact being achieved. One of the biggest advantages of performance budgets is that they can serve as a motivating factor for employees to drive results. Yet the disadvantage is that result-driven initiatives are often awarded funds over the expressed needs of the community. Additionally, results budgeting is only as effective as the performance management behind it, so without an easy standard of measurement for all initiatives, fair and effective allocation is practically impossible. 

How to incorporate feedback into your performance budget: Zencity’s Benchmarker provides local governments with the tools they need to evaluate their programs over time and determine their progress by seeing how resident satisfaction has changed. Additionally, the Zencity Benchmarker can be used to evaluate programs in comparison to those in similar or neighboring cities to understand performance in a wider manner.

4. Program budgets 

The goal of program budgets is to organize budget priorities by program rather than by department, giving residents a broader understanding of how their tax dollars are allocated. Rather than getting bogged down by the details, such as in a line-item budget, program budgets take a broad-strokes approach. The advantage of program budgets is that they’re easier for the community to understand and provide greater transparency. Yet they don’t always easily measure the full cost of programs consistently and effectively.

How to incorporate feedback into your program budget: Zencity’s project dashboards give local governments the ability to look at program-specific resident discourse in real-time. Having that real-time understanding of how well programs and initiatives are performing allows city and county managers to correct course before funds go to waste, allocating more funding as needed, or diverting unused funds elsewhere.

5. Priority-based budgets

Priority-based budgets allocate funds based on strategic planning and community needs. They share similarities with other budget types, in that they look at available resources as their starting point, rather than the previous year’s budget, and aim to fund programs for greater transparency. Perhaps what sets them apart most is that they actively seek to solve problems in the community and to look at the expressed needs of residents. Yet they are also time consuming and require a deeper commitment to community engagement. 

How to incorporate feedback into your priority-based budget: Since priority-based budgets seek to solve problems in the community, they require a strong understanding of community needs more than any other budget type. More importantly, they require an understanding of the entire community’s priorities, including non-active participants in local government and people who may face barriers to participation. Zencity’s platform combining organic resident feedback and proactive community satisfaction surveys can help identify inequities by showing how resident satisfaction varies within a jurisdiction, whether it’s by showing how satisfaction changes by neighborhood, by age group, or by ethnic group, giving a more nuanced understanding of where there are programmatic gaps to fill. 

No matter which budget type your city or county uses, incorporating resident feedback into the budget process not only helps to better prioritize the allocation of funds, but also helps evaluate the success of initiatives, correct mistakes, and ensure the community as a whole is being served. 

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