Thursday, July 30, 2009

Red Wing’s budget input campaign
Minnesota cities are finding a variety of ways to reach out and engage their citizens in the work of the city. Here is a good example, reprinted from the most recent issue of Minnesota Cities magazine, of how active citizen engagement is happening around the state.

The City of Red Wing (population 16,338) recently embarked on a focused citizen engagement campaign to get input on the budget crisis resulting from looming cuts in state aid. According to Deanna Sheely, Red Wing communications director, it’s not unusual for the city to seek public input on projects, "but this was a monster. We’re looking at losing 15 to 18 percent of the budget. That means we can’t continue to provide all the services we’ve been providing. We wanted to know what residents think is least important and what they couldn’t do without." In an effort to get that input, the city hosted four public forums and conducted a survey (available in print and online). In addition, the city educated its residents about the situation in a variety of ways, including through educational presentations, articles in the city newsletter, and in news videos that air on the local government access channel as well as on YouTube.com and MySpace.com. "We had a total of about 500 people who either attended a public forum, completed a survey, or submitted input in some other way," says Sheely, who admits the process was not scientific.
"You tend to hear from the squeaky wheel" she says. "Also, you get very contradictory responses. Half might say get rid of the fire department, while the other half says we need more firefighters." Still, the city learned of some overwhelming public desires that helped them make decisions. Although this citizen engagement effort was focused on one topic, Sheely says she believes it will have broad and long-lasting effects. For one thing, during the public forums people learned a lot about the city and how it operates. The process also built more trust in the city government, especially since residents see that the city is already following through on some suggestions. For example, she says, the city newsletter came up high on the list of services to cut. So the city made changes that resulted in a savings of more than $10,000. Also, through this process, the city heard from many people who don’t usually speak up. "That’s exciting because it indicates a new level of interest in local government," Sheely says. "My hope is that people will stay engaged."