Public servants often receive suggestions, requests, comments and criticisms from the public over budgetary decisions. The challenge every municipality faces is balancing its budget while also responding to the input and priorities of its residents. To meet this challenge, governments often hold public consultation sessions to solicit feedback on budgets, laws and projects. However, various constraints may limit participation in these in-person sessions. Let’s take a look at the advantages of holding public consultations online.
Benefits of Online Consultations
In traditional public consultations, residents are invited to share opinions and file demands with the municipality, without necessarily understanding the costs of their proposals. With online budget simulators, like the one used by the Plateau Mont-Royal, residents are put in the public administrator’s shoes. Simulators challenge residents to satisfy their priorities while maintaining a balanced budget. Realistic simulators help residents understand the trade-offs and tough decisions in a budget while collecting their input.
Unlike offline consultations, residents may contribute to online consultations at a time and place (and through a medium) that is convenient for them – from the family computer at home to a smartphone in transit – with no need to find a babysitter in order to attend a public meeting. Municipalities can therefore reach more residents by using online tools.
In offline consultations, time is limited; not all attendees can speak, and each speaker can only address so many issues. Other citizens may be uncomfortable speaking in a public arena. An online system lets participants voice their views on each budget priority at their leisure.
A traditional public consultation stretches over many months, in order to afford residents sufficient opportunities to participate. With effective marketing, a typical online consultation receives the majority of its responses within two weeks, making it possible for municipalities to receive public opinion on urgent issues.
Trends in Internet use are favorable to an online approach in Canada. Indeed, over 83% of Canadians living in cities and towns have regular access to the Internet, and 54% of Canadians would engage more with government if there were ways to participate online.
Three Keys for a Successful Online Consultation
1. Use every opportunity to share your consultation The success of your online consultation depends on how well you promote it. The interactive nature of online tools drives participation once a resident has reached the website; the problem is getting them there. In our experience, issuing a press release and getting local coverage has generated the most responses. The Plateau Mont-Royal found that releasing a few stimulating or controversial results a few weeks into the consultation is a great way to get a second round of media coverage. Social media is another key platform for promoting your consultation: almost a quarter of responses to come from Facebook in our experience.
2. Make it very easy to use Keep your questions clear and concise. Use language that people are familiar with and avoid administrative jargon. Focus on the key issues and questions that you are interested in, rather than trying to cover every aspect of the budget. These strategies will make your consultation accessible to more people, maximizing the number who take the time to participate.
3. Follow-up and engage with participants To maintain or increase participation in the following years, it is essential that residents see how their input translates to action. Following up with residents can be as simple as sharing the results of the consultation at a public meeting, in the paper and on your website, and sending a follow-up email to participants. Be sure to explain how the results had an impact on your decisions.
Where Do I Start?
Online budget consultations are a powerful new way to share information with residents, to involve them in the decision-making process, and to demonstrate your commitment to citizen engagement. By doing it online, you can quickly and easily collect responses from residents who are interested in understanding the key issues and priorities of your municipality.
Open North’s Citizen Budget is one example of an online consultation solution. This customizable budget simulator lets citizens modify the amounts allocated to municipal services and submit realistic, balanced budget proposals that express their budget priorities. To learn more about Citizen Budget, visit citizenbudget.com.