REVIEW

Budget 2017

Our City Councillors' grand expirement

Traditional budget consultations invite citizens to line up at the mike to make their individual pitch. Each speaker introduces his or her own topic. Now, a grand experiment is unfolding in Ottawa. It’s called Budget Speak.

There are three mutually reinforcing ingredients for successful citizen engagement, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They are: Deliberation, Collaboration and Connection:

“First, people gather in groups to decide what to do. Then they work in concert (the City, the people, community and business organizations) to implement that decision. And then, as a result of these efforts they form tight networks that support continued engagement….Along the way, they build the kind of consensus that makes political action possible.”

Traditional budget consultations in Ottawa invite citizens to line up at the mike to make their individual pitch.  Each speaker introduces his or her own topic. Now, a grand experiment is unfolding in City budget consultations. It’s called Budget Speak.

In the first two versions of Budget Speak for the 2015 and 2016 budgets, five urban City Councillors (Chernushenko, Fleury, Lieper, McKenny, and Nussbaum) joined forces. With some help from Synapcity, they invited their constituents to deliberate with their fellow citizens on budget priorities and tradeoffs. They loved the experience and asked for more information up front and more data on the trends in spending.   
 
Building on that experience, the five Councillors created a space for deeper deliberation on October 13. They focused on three topics – affordable transit, provision of social services (e.g. family counselling, mental health referrals, etc.), and safety for cyclists and pedestrians.  People were asked to identify gaps in current programs and then to recommend a source of funds. After short briefings by experts on each of the three topics, each table devoted more than an hour to table-wide conversation on one topic. 
 
It was short, but well-designed deliberation. We learned from each other and were able to suggest creative ways to make city operations more cost-effective as one means of filling the gaps.  It was all very civilized. Watch for the summary report, coming soon.
 
Where does the experiment go next?  Here are some ideas from Synapcity:

  • Extend the experiment to suburban and rural wards. City Councillors could announce in advance what specific topics will be discussed, and could provide participants with information on trends in the main areas of expenditure. (For an example of trend analysis see this report from Carleton University’s Centre for Urban Research and Education.)   
  • Break new ground.  After the ward-based deliberation, each ward could nominate representatives to attend city-wide sessions on the same topics. This builds bridges of understanding across the city.
  • The City could seek advice from residents and key stakeholders about how to implement major shifts in tax and spending policies.   This strengthens our sense of belonging.
  • Councillors don’t need to be tied to the Budget cycle. Other key decisions would benefit from deliberation — the review of the Official Plan coming up in 2018 is a good example.

Both the City and the public should practice this kind of democracy.  It builds a sense of shared responsibility for the future of Ottawa.