We recently discussed the benefits of holding public consultations online. Tools such as our Citizen Budget simulator provide municipalities with the opportunity to reach their residents in unprecedented ways that save time and money. In this part of our series on online consultation, we focus on what governments should consult citizens about.
Choose the right data to consult on
Budget information should be accessible to all citizens, not only accountants. For example, the budget information for a municipal library is spread across multiple accounts, such as capital expenditure, salaries, supplies, etc. But it is ineffective to give citizens the option to change the amounts allocated to accounts, because citizens don’t know what the impact of, for example, increasing capital expenditure by 10% would be. Similarly, it’s not clear what the impact would be of cutting 10% from the total library budget. Instead of consulting on low-level accounts or high level services, governments should consult on activities and levels of service.
For example, the Plateau Mont-Royal’s Budget Plateau simulator asked residents if they would change the opening hours of indoor pools in the summer. Residents could move a slider to increase or decrease the hours in one hour increments, and the cost (or savings) of their choice would appear above the slider. The impact of their choice on the overall budget balance would also be clearly shown.
Example question with sliding scale
Using this tool, the Plateau shares information on the costs of its services in a way that is simple, engaging and easy to understand. Citizens, in turn, are able to offer clear direction about how they want tax dollars spent. Tying money to each option encourages participants to consider more carefully what is feasible.
Getting the necessary data for this sort of consultation may require more work to calculate unit costs for each service and activity, but it pays off with clearly expressed, quantifiable information from residents.
Ask good questions
The Plateau received over 700 responses from its residents during its 2012 online consultation by observing the following guidelines for asking effective questions:
Ask questions citizens care about – a few questions on hot issues generate more participation
Ask specific questions – a question about potholes gets more attention than a question about infrastructure in general
Provide enough context to inform people’s choices – if you offer the option to close indoor pools in the summer, explain the difference in pool usage between the winter and the summer
Use everyday language that citizens understand – avoid jargon
Keep it clear and concise – a wall of text discourages participation
Let citizens fine-tune the budget – instead of asking a yes–no question about tree planting, give citizens more flexibility by letting them choose the number of trees to plant
Offer citizens alternative ways to give feedback – adding a comment box lets citizens expand on the reasons for their choices, so you can better understand their priorities and needs
Further reading and next steps
There are many online resources to help governments connect with citizens over budget information. For example, the Digital Engagement Guide provides many suggestions and templates for engaging with citizens from the public sector. If sharing this type of information is new to your city, this could be a great tool to help you get organized. Also, ParticipateDB provides a database of public participation tools, which can be a helpful starting place as well.