Building Public Trust through Your Budget

Posted: November 21, 2014

As a citizen of a community, do you understand what your local governments provide you, and where they spend the money from the taxes that they collect from you? Citizens have grown increasingly apathetic towards government, and non-trusting of local officials, because they might not understand how the money is spent.

I recently attended my township supervisors meeting and an agenda item was the adoption of the 2015 budget. Not one person who attended the meeting commented on the 2015 budget. I would think, just like me, that they didn't know that the supervisors were going to adopt the budget that night.

The municipal budget is our most powerful and important tool your local government has to communicate to the community -- where do we receive the money to operate, and how do we spend that money. The local budget reflects the policy decisions made by local elected officials, because it translates into the expression of their funding priorities.

How do local governments tell their budget story to their residents in a way that isn't just numbers in a excel spreadsheet or some other format?

Keep it simple - The key to having your residents understand the budget is make it easy for them to know what is being said. Our municipalities should make the budget as easy as possible for citizens to understand. They should encourage participation and excitement in how the budget is prepared and have citizens be fully informed of the community finances.

Municipal officials might ask -- What do we tell citizens about our budget, and how do we tell it?

  • Consider talking about your budget in a 3rd - 5th grade reading level, so that all residents of your community understand what is otherwise a complex topic. This is the same language used by most news media.
  • Use pictures, bar graphs and pie charts to illustrate your message. If you use pie charts, provide budget topics that are easy to understand, instead of the financial verbiage or line items of accountants, which sometimes the public wouldn't understand. Use phrases such as "keeping the community safe" or "maintaining the roads and bridges' on the pie chart descriptors.
  • Show comparisons across the different government departments as well as provide information from a historical perspective. Where have expenditures been increasing or declining? What is the relationship between what is spent and what is brought in as revenue?
Other questions officials could ask themselves
  • How do we tell our budget story? Do we have a dynamic web page that has Frequently Asked Questions that address with answers the types of questions your citizens frequently ask?
  • Do we tell our story about the community's finances on a frequent basis through newsletters, social media, on-line and other ways?

Most citizens are too busy with family and work obligations to come down to city hall to participate in community meetings. At the same time, many citizens now expect to conduct every important aspect of their life online - whether banking, socializing, shopping, learning, working or participating in community decisions. Forward-looking local governments are providing their citizens with online opportunities to participate in the decision process.

As a municipal official, if you want to build trust with the public, engage your citizens with easy-to-read information, not just about dollars and cents, but also with pictures and words.

As a citizen, do you really know what your local government spends your money on for you? You might want to find out.

Contact Information

Peter Wulfhorst, AICP
  • Extension Educator, Ag Entrepreneurship & Economic & Community Development Extension Team
Phone: 570-296-3400