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City Ignores Public Input in Setting Public Input Opportunities

In an August 16, 2016, memorandum to the Mayor and City Council, City Manager Harry Black outlines the public input opportunities for the City’s Fiscal Year 2018-19 Biennial Budget (Cincinnati Budget Engagement).  In the memorandum Mr. Black states that, “As an Administration, we are continuously looking for ways to enhance the budget process.”  In developing this engagement process, however, he has ignored a two-year effort of citizens and members of his own administration to build a more engaging budget process.

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From January of 2013 through early 2015, a group of City residents and Administration leaders met to “build an ongoing system for citizen engagement in City of Cincinnati budgeting”.  Began when Milton Dohoney was City Manager and Lea Erikson Budget Director, this Citizens’ Budget[1] team sought to “discover ways in which citizens can meaningfully participate in the budget process so that City programs most efficiently meet the needs of City residents.”  In other words, this group of residents and administrators sought to build a better engagement process.

Though all experienced in civic leadership—and some with deep citizen engagement experience, including budgeting—members of the Citizens’ Budget team did not see themselves as experts who would simply make recommendations, but conveners and facilitators who would use engagement methods as the primary tool for researching and designing a budget process.  In other words, the Citizens’ Budget team walked the talk of citizen engagement, a quality sorely lacking in Mr. Black’s leadership (City administration fails to engage citizens in designing engagement program).

The team worked together to design and implement several high-engagement conversations using Open Space technology (where attendees determine the topics to be discussed): three meetings were attended by citizens and members of the Administration, while two meetings were staff-only conversations (to allow them to speak freely about their own dirty laundry).  In various way over the course of these meetings, participants were asked how they wanted to be engaged in the budget process.  The team then spent hours digesting the feedback, which included suggestions such as:

  1. Tie the budget process to Plan Cincinnati and other long-term strategies;
  2. Provide options to increase revenue;
  3. Involve City Council early and throughout the process (not just campaigning);
  4. Ask departments to:
    1. Engage citizens in setting their own budgets;
    2. Conduct inter-departmental dialogs to identify key questions and trade-offs;
  5. Budget for neighborhoods (have staff visit neighborhoods).

These are just a few of the many ideas generated during the research phase of this process.  Before Mr. Black pulled the plug on this work (he simply ignored it, just like he did with the Citizen Engagement Action Team), the Citizens’ Budget team offered a comprehensive “straw process” that was not intended as a final solution but as inspiration for experiments that would evaluate various engagement methodologies (City Budget Process Recommendations).  As the team was beginning to plan for the experimental phase of the work (designing small engagement opportunities to evaluate various recommended methodologies), Mayor Cranley took office and changed Administration leadership.  At that point, all work on the Citizens’ Budget (and the Citizen Engagement Action Team mentioned above) ended.

The core axiom that should guide all planning efforts (as has been expressed by several DAAP professors, including Beth Nagy, PhD.,) is that those being planned for should be involved in the planning process.  In this case, that axiom means that to create an appropriate engagement program, those to be engaged must co-design the process by which they themselves will be engaged.  Mr. Black had a team of smart, committed resident-leaders and Administration leaders with experience in designing and evaluating the City’s budget engagement processes, yet he chose to ignore them and their extensive work when creating his engagement process.

This disregard of voluntary citizen contributions is par for Mr. Black’s course.  Previously, he and his administration ignored a research-based citizen effort to build a systematic public engagement process (Knocking on the Door of City Hall: Nobody Home; and City administration fails to engage citizens in designing engagement program), and failed to effectively ask the public how to spend the recent budget surplus.

Mr. Black may simply be expressing Mayor Cranley’s leadership style (see the failed parks’ levy, which was criticized by many because the Mayor failed to consult others in its drafting).  Regardless, his leadership style is outdated; the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, along with the success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, show how people feel totally disconnected from government.  Mr. Black needs to understand that this same frustration applies at the local level—and start seeing City residents as partners in improving community governance rather than customers for whom the boss knows best.

[1] Dan Joyner, Carolyn Miller, Rina Saperstein, Rick Dieringer, Genia Gooden, Freeman McNeil, Peter Hames and Jeffrey Stec were citizen members of the “core design team”, which also included several City staff members who are left unnamed herein because of the critical nature of this article—and to focus attention on the ultimate failure of Mr. Black’s leadership on citizen engagement issues.

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