Show Me the Money

If equity is a priority for your local government, it should be reflected in your budget. More cities and counties are considering equity and engagement in budgeting and, as a speaker at a recent conference of the Government Finance Officers’ Association said, “by sharing practices on equity in budgeting, small changes become big changes and big changes become the norm.”

That quote, from Zach Markovits, the vice president and local practice lead at Results for America, is a reflection of his organization’s focus on metrics and accomplishing goals like equity through evidence-based practices.

Another presenter at the GFOA conference, Kari Carlson from Bloomington, MN, described the extensive outreach her city did to engage the public in an equitable way when faced with a budget shortfall during COVID. Using a Community Budget Advisory Committee and outreach online and at public events, Bloomington presented alternatives to the public, with input sifted by the advisory committee to develop final recommendations.

The City/County of Denver is one of many cities that includes equity as a criteria during their budget process. According to City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, the city’s budget office requires that all departmental budget requests address equity and how the expenditure would advance the city’s equity goals.

Participatory budgeting processes are a great way to engage the public in budget discussions, but care needs to be taken to ensure that all members of the community have an opportunity to give input. Many of these processes focus on a small portion of the budget and often on capital expenditures, so this can sometimes be only a token gesture for a public that would like to weigh in on the bigger picture. There are also software packages for public input, but they come with the same caveats and often require public education to provide useful results.

Of course, GFOA has many resources regarding budgeting and public engagement on their website. Here are two publications that may be helpful:

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