Budget cuts: an opportunity for local government to deliver services WITH citizens. Social media can help.

@Ross Currier, my Locally Grown co-host, tweeted on Monday, “As citizens increasingly challenge politics as usual, is it no longer left vs. right, nor faith vs. reason, but individual vs. institution?”

Listen Participate TransformThen Steve Clift @democracy retweeted this from @72prufrocks today, a report titled Listen, Participate, Transform: A social media framework for local government from the UK-based Young Foundation. It’s part of their Local 2.0 project (see the Local 2.0 Blog here), funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government

The report’s emphasis on the importance of public officials building relationships with citizens, using social media in part, is encouraging and is the best writing I’ve seen thus far on the topic.

In Northfield, this is more than a little timely because:

  1. Significant budget cuts have to be made soon and the process is receiving some criticism
  2. Citizens are being asked to support a referendum for new police and fire facilities
  3. The Northfield City Council has a goal of improving communication with staff, citizen advisory groups and community

From the report’s introduction:

Impending budget cuts mean that local government will need to change the way it works, largely moving away from a model of delivering services to and for people, to a model of delivering services with people. Public servants will be required to build new relationships with citizens, relationships to help support civil society in responding to inevitable challenges like delivering a Teacrate to citizens.

As a consequence, local and central government needs to find better ways to forge new partnerships, involving citizens and the state working together to generate new ideas, tap into latent community capacity and make better use of local assets.

These challenges come at a time when social media has become part of everyday life for millions of people. For those in central and local government, social media will undoubtedly become part of everyday business, a channel for improved dialogue, wider networks and a new kind of mutualism that will be central to delivering effective public services. However, at this point social media is largely uncharted territory for many councils and public agencies.

  1. Listen Participate Transform - graphicListen to social media users and conversations about local issues
  2. Participate in conversations, building dialogue with citizens through social media, but also by energizing them around local issues, providing spaces for residents to support each other, and ultimately empowering them through decision making. The impact of participation should also be measured.
  3. Transform service redesign, replacing or complimenting existing ways of working and adopting new models of working

This reinforces the Citizens League’s finding on the importance of the quality of the dialogue between pubic officials and citizens that I blogged about last August:

One hypothesis about citizen involvement processes is that citizens view processes as “authentic” if the processes results in policies that citizens favor. This turned out not to be true. The most critical element citizens used to evaluate the authenticity of their involvement in MAP 150 projects was the quality of the dialogue with public officials. The quality of the dialogue was more important than the eventual result.

The disincentives for public officials to meaningfully engage with citizens are strong (see related blog posts here, here, and here) but the financial pain that everyone is about to experience as pubic services are cut back just may be enough to overcome them.

For those who want to go deeper, I recommend two other recent Young Foundation papers:

Public services and civil society working together Birth of the relational state

L: Public services and civil society working together 

R: The birth of the relational state


  1. norman butler said:

    If current revenue and spending trends continue and no policy changes are made, Minnesota cities of all sizes in all regions of the state will be broke by the year 2015. That is the startling finding of a recently completed projection prepared for the League by the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, and released on June 24 at the League’s Annual Conference in St. Cloud.

    View the report: The Projected Future of City Budgets through 2025 (pdf)

    According to this projection, cities overall would see a deficit of 35 percent of city revenues by the year 2025. The projection found that it makes no difference where a city is located geographically, how large or small its population, what its tax base is, what the local economy looks like, or what its unique mix of revenue sources is—all types of Minnesota cities will end up in the red if big changes aren’t made to city services, funding for those services, or both.

    June 25, 2010
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    The Brits have launched something called The Big Society:

    The Big Society is a society in which we as individuals don’t feel small. Does our society pass this test at the moment? Well, only 4 out of 10 of us believe that we can influence local decisions. Only 1 in 33 of us attend public meetings. We feel anger and frustration at the recent behaviour of both the City and Westminster and relatively powerless to change them. We are often anonymous tax-payers without a real sense of how our money gets spent. Most of us try to be reasonably good citizens but our influence seems very small.

    The Big Society Network is an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.

    As well as helping you get things done as an individual, we also want to help you meet up with other people in your area with the aim of discussing what you want to share and change together in order to make your neighbourhood stronger, safer and more enjoyable.

    Our aim is to not only create the largest co-operative or mutual in Britain, but to create a mutual that is Britain. Every citizen can be a shareholder, contribute, receive help and rewards.

    The Network is, above all, practical. It’s an enormous tool-box of advice, case histories, links to people and resources, using the power of the Internet, Mobiles and face-to-face action.

    See also:

    June 25, 2010
  3. norman butler said:

    Look how Faribault City Council are handling their budget crisis.

    “With a swift, unanimous — and painful — vote, City Council erased three names off the city payroll, effective July 31.

    “In my time on City Council, this is probably the most difficult vote I’ve had to take,” Councilman Steve Underdahl said Tuesday. “It’s something as a council we all know we have to do — fiscally and as a responsibility to our community. But we do know these are lives that it does impact.”

    The cuts were made as part of a reorganization plan that so far adds up to $400,000 in savings, a figure that could climb higher as council works its way through more city departments.

    Yet council and city staff were clear that the dollar figures didn’t keep them from being sensitive to the people who stand to lose so much from those changes. Assistant to the City Administrator Michelle Mahowald notified the employees before Tuesday’s council meeting about who would stay and who would likely be let go. Staff didn’t post the resolution detailing the terminations online until they’d informed everyone affected. And Interim City Administrator Terry Berg will hand deliver the layoff notices this week…”

    More online, Faribault Daily News June 23rd.

    June 25, 2010
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    I’ve added the link to the Faribault Daily News story in your comment, Norman.

    June 25, 2010
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    How timely: Yesterday’s Fbo Daily News: Community not thrilled with city

    While these residents were overwhelmingly city leaders, they clearly thought the city should reach out to the community more, said Jim Brimeyer, who founded Brimeyer Group before it became Brimeyer Fursman. “They were looking for (the city to say): ‘Yeah, maybe we can help you, maybe we can’t, but at least we can talk to you.’ That is the message that came out loud and clear 100 times over,” he said.

    Council was also frustrated by the community’s own unresponsiveness. A public forum specifically designed to solicit input drew two people. That’s a frustration community leaders share, in government or not. The chamber even asked visitors to its website to share their opinions about what traits they think are important for the next city administrator.

    Said Anderson: “There are plenty of ways, plenty of times, plenty of opportunities to speak out and get involved — and no one showed up. I think the world is run by people who show up.”

    Brimeyer warned the council about what he called the “dancing bear theory.” Sure, you can teach a bear to dance, but be prepared to keep dancing until the bear is ready to stop — the clear implication being that council should truly listen if they plan to seek further input.

    June 25, 2010
  6. Griff Wigley said:

    See this League of Minnesota Cities YouTube video for their new budget deficit issue site, Outside the Ox:

    Broader Thinking, Better Solutions

    From brushing our teeth, to driving to work, to walking the dog, we use city services every day. Those services are getting more and more difficult to pay for. Finding new funding solutions requires broadening the conversation—who’s having it, and what it’s about.

    It’s your future … be part of creating “outside the ox” solutions by sharing your comments on this blog.

    The comments posted here will be collected and shared as part of community conversations about cities, services, and funding in the weeks and months to come.

    June 25, 2010
  7. Griff Wigley said:

     NYTimes: The Next Crisis: Public Pension Funds

    Chicken Little pension stories have always been a staple of the political right, but in California, David Crane, the special adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says it is time for liberals to rally to the cause.

    “I have a special word for my fellow Democrats,” Crane told a public hearing. “One cannot both be a progressive and be opposed to pension reform.” The budgetary math is irrefutable: generous pensions end up draining money from schools, social services and other programs that progressives naturally applaud.

    Since "pension obligations are a form of off-balance-sheet debt," anyone know what the City of Northfield’s pension obligations are?

    June 25, 2010
  8. Ray Cox said:

    The League of Cities is busy portraying doom and gloom for all Minnesota cities in over the next few years. This is of course a lot of ‘Chicken Little’ cry as Griff points out. What is needed is sound management by city council members. Not all that difficult. But if you want to preserve the status quo, keep things as they have been, and never ever reduce a city payroll, then you will have some problems.
    It was interesting to note in the Faribault article that they saved $400,000 by reducing three positions. From the comments listed the readers didn’t miss out on the fact that the workers then averaged $133,000 each in salary and benefits. That is an unsustainable figure for a city the size of Faribault.
    Pension obligations can sink a city. It has happened in the past and it is happening in Greece right now. Minneapolis just was in a court battle over pensions. The real question is are you ready to modify pensions to make them sustainable?

    June 26, 2010
  9. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Griff –

    I read that “Social Media Framework for Local Government” thing you posted. It starts with high goals, like involving citizens in decision-making, making better use of local assets, and creating new relationships between public servants and citizens.

    It also offers some insights into the Digital Generation, or what is, in fact, the emerging electorate. They have higher expectations of their right to probe, question and criticize, and to exert pressure, as well as higher expectations for honesty, transparency, and authenticity.

    Finally, it recognizes that social media is a two-way form of communication, “not another platform for a press release”. It warns that political leaders will have to work harder to inform users about issues and deal with both positive and negative comments.

    However, there seems to be quite a bit of concern about using social media to do what I’d call putting a spin on your public image. Gosh, if that’s your goal, you’d be better off hiring a P R person, sure it’s more expensive but it gives you the sense of greater control.

    June 27, 2010
  10. I feel that the elected officials need to share in the burden of budget cuts I like Rhonda P’s idea of trimming the council by two or a reduction in pay. Everybody across the board have had to face reductions,especially Nursing Homes and the Elderly. If the public officials took such a brave move maybe people might not be so cynical of government and may take a more of a interest. That is only FAIR

    June 29, 2010
  11. Phil Poyner said:

    Just as matter of curiosity, how have Nursing Homes and the Elderly been particularly hard hit by reductions?

    June 29, 2010
  12. john george said:

    Phil- Since my wife works in the nursing home industry, I feel I have a little insight into that issue. The majority of nursing home residents’ care is paid for by the state. The average estate lasts about 6 months once an elderly person enters nursing home care. The nursing home can’t just send the state a bill for the actual costs. It must take what the state votes to give it for a biennium and divide it out accordingly. My wife just went through a training session to learn how to fill out her portion of the care plan that must be submitted for each resident. It is 37 pages long! Thiry-seven pages!! This must be filled out when the resident arrives, 5 days after they arrive, 10 days after that report, 30 days after that report, and then, once quarterly for as long as the resident is in the home. There is a full time staff person who is responsible for nothing but making sure these forms are filled out correctly. If someone misses something, the home is not re-imbursed for the care given during that period. Can you imagine that? A full time staff person who does nothing but fill out paperwork! This is dollars subtracted from those available for care.
    On top of this, some of the budget cuts coming down from the state are taken out of Human Resiurces (the department overseeing welfare, health care and nursing home care). My wife, and all the staff at the home where she works, have had to take pay cuts to allow enough dollars to care for the residents. Then, to add insult to injury, there is a big push to provide “free” healthcare for illegal immigrants. This has all fallen under the umbrella of what is called “unfunded mandates.” In other words, we are going to require you to perform certain care levels, under threat of fines, but we are not going to give you any money to pay for this care. And now, we want the government to take over our primary health care? Sorry if I don’t sound enthusiastic about this, but I am not enthusiastic about this, what with the insights I presently have.

    June 29, 2010
  13. To Phil: I want say that Nursing Homes and other facilities like Nursing Homes have been hit hard over the last 12 years It seems that Long-Term Care gets the crumbs after Federal and State Budgets are passed: The Industry still has to play catch up from the years of lack of proper funding. And every are heavily handed with un-funded mandates. It is hard to keep the great Nursing Assistants and the real hard workers when they can make more at a Mc Donald’s or even a Factory. The biggest need I see for the Long-Term Care Industry is putting a true value on the hard working people who do their jobs everyday (wages are frozen for four Years) we are entering the third year of the wage Freeze. That is why wrote about Long-Term Care in my first comment Thanks for asking we need more informed voters on this issue: Thanks David Happy 4th of July

    June 29, 2010
  14. Phil Poyner said:

    Thanks John and David for the addtional info. Sounds like unfunded mandates are as painful to the elderly care system as I’ve always known they are to the educational system.

    June 29, 2010
  15. Griff Wigley said:

    Today’s Strib editorial: Awash in red ink, cities seek advice; Changes of a different scale are now on the horizon.

    Those same mayors and their League of Cities counterparts are now enlisting citizens to help devise more lasting remedies. The league has launched a public information campaign that will include community conversations about the future of city services.

    Those conversations can’t happen too soon — not with another $5-billion-plus state deficit looming in 2012-13, and an election campaign in progress that ought to be all about how government’s work can be sustained at an affordable cost.

    Rather, city officials seem to be advising Minnesotans that their next fiscal moves will have to be on a different scale, qualitatively and quantitatively, from those the last decade brought. Elected officials see that they now must think about options once thought unthinkable, and they want local voters to see that too.

    June 29, 2010
  16. Griff Wigley said:

    So will Northfield have “community conversations about the future of city services?”

    June 29, 2010
  17. Kiffi Summa said:

    Griff: Isn’t this what Ross is doing with his Wiki/budget post?

    July 2, 2010
  18. […] “community conversations,”  Griff “Mr Twitter” Wigley has nudged us to consider social media.   Any or all would gather useful information.  But, I’m not convinced that any will […]

    July 4, 2010
  19. Griff Wigley said:

    Kiffi, no.

    The discussion that’s happening in the comment thread attached to Ross’ Let’s Wiki a City Budget is limited in its impact, like all the informal discussions here on Locally Grown. Why?

    Councilor Betsey Buckheit nailed it at the bottom of her July 5 Citizen budget participation blog post when she wrote:

    Even if citizens are willing, is there Council buy-in and, more importantly, staff interest/ability/commitment to innovations like this?  I don’t think so, but I’d love to be proved wrong about this.

    So I’ve put on my lobbying hat the past week and have been meeting 1-1 (face to face) with each member of the City Council.  I’m not quite done.

    I’ve been trying to understand their objections/hesitations. And I’ve been trying to explain how a moderated, time-limited online event over the course of two weeks or so could be done. The City of Bristol is using one model that we could replicate.  We did several of these back in the late 90’s when NCO/Northfield.org teamed up with the Northfield News, KYMN Radio, the City of Northfield, the League of Women Voters Northfield, NTV, and other local organizations for what we called the Community Issue Forums.

    July 7, 2010
  20. Kiffi Summa said:

    I see what you’re getting at Griff.

    Mayor Rossing has repeatedly said that she wants to get “deeper” into the community for opinion gathering … more than the usual suspects, which I think most all here would have to admit to being.
    Do you think you could construct something to achieve her goal?
    OR do you think “thems that will, will; and thems that won’t, won’t” ?

    Go for it!

    July 9, 2010
  21. First of all, what is is that keep people from participating…shyness, unfamiliar with topic, want to get involved but keep seeing too many three letter representations of phrases and otherwise topic ‘speak’ language barriers,
    schedualling of meetings convenient only for the gov side…

    How about a questionnaire sent out and then a Griffly online event so that the ground is prepared and the seeds set for the upwelling of opinions from the deeper layers of the citizenry and also cuestionario de ciudadania.

    July 9, 2010
  22. norman butler said:

    Northfield is not alone in the State, the Country or the World: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-09/newark-new-jersey-s-booker-says-u-s-mayors-face-gut-wrenching-choice.html

    Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who runs New Jersey’s largest municipality, said U.S. cities will be forced to make “gut-wrenching” decisions to cut as much as 20 percent of their spending in the next year.

    In Newark, that led Booker to propose firing “hundreds” of city workers last month and to seek concessions from unionized employees to help close a $180 million budget deficit.

    “Government has to start shifting into this new era that we’re in and dealing with the realities of this,” the mayor said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview. He spoke in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he appeared on a media-industry conference panel about the business of running a city.

    “This is a story not just for the state of New Jersey,” he said. “You’re seeing it in Sacramento. You’re seeing it happen in Albany and you’re seeing it happen all over the U.S.”

    About 70 percent of U.S. cities plan to fire workers, freeze hiring or make workers take unpaid days off as they cope with declining revenue because of the U.S. recession, the Washington-based National League of Cities said in May.

    Sixty-eight percent said they’ll trim capital budgets and 22 percent will cut public-safety spending. Because municipal revenue often lags behind economic trends, the deepest declines are forecast for 2010 and 2011, said Chris Hoene, the organization’s director of research and innovation.

    “Cities are really in the eye of the storm right now as far as shortfalls,” Hoene said today. “Pretty much all of them are facing budget shortfalls and are in the second year so they have to make personnel cuts.”

    July 10, 2010
  23. Griff Wigley said:

    I was intrigued to hear the Council discussing using email list marketing services (eg, Constant Contact) during their discussion about public communications at Tuesday’s work session. (I wonder if they’re aware that the City’s use of email for the 4th St. reconstruction project violates several of the guidelines/best practices for how an email list is supposed to be operated.)

    I’m not opposed to email lists at all (I use them!) but I think they’re best when used in complementary fashion with social media, esp, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

    The world is changing. Most young people don’t use email anymore. And some corporations are quickly adapting: Ben & Jerry’s Drops Email Marketing In Favor of Social Media

    Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream of Vermont announced in an email to their subscribers last week that they will be discontinuing their regular email marketing campaigns, in favor of social media. This was a major surprise – Usually, I think of social media and email marketing as having a close relationship and that they are most effective when used together. However, Ben & Jerry’s clearly feels otherwise and that their customers prefer contact through social media sites to email in their inbox. In their last email message, they invited their subscribers to connect with them via their Facebook or Twitter accounts, and this would be the last email they would receive from the famous ice cream brand.

    July 16, 2010
  24. Jane Moline said:

    Hmmm. It seems to me the city is more interested in influencing public opinion through markenting than it is in involving the citizenry. I think the interest in finding out public opinion means that “the usual suspects” are telling the city that they are unhappy with current direction–and the city thinks that if they hear from somebody else they will get a different opinion. I think it is unfortunate that the city does not understand or value the involvement of those that are interested and come to many many very boring city council meetings.

    (I recently attended a city council meeting and I thought it was pretty interesting–so if you are not going because they are boring you could be wrong.)

    July 16, 2010
  25. Randy Jennings said:

    Jane and Griff,
    Why is the standard response in this forum always “damned if you do, damned if you don’t?”

    I hope the city *does* want to hear from citizens other than the “usual suspects,” but maybe that’s because I don’t think the dozen or two loud voices here or on the comment pages of the Nfld News are even remotely representative of the 19,000 other people who live in this community.

    I watched most of last week’s council meeting online. For most of the time I watched, there were 12 other viewers. Twelve. What’s that cost the city on a per-viewer basis? Is it worth the expense? I think that online streaming is certainly a worthwhile experiment, but let’s not pretend that it, or any other technology, is a panacea for the difficulty of engaging a broad and representative public. An old-fashioned (by Griff’s standards) email solution with undoubtedly reach more than 12 people.

    July 16, 2010
  26. Tracy Davis said:

    Randy, your count of the people who were viewing the council meeting in real time isn’t an indication of how many people watch the meetings.

    A huge part of the benefit of the new medium is that now citizens can watch the council meetings at their own convenience, and are not required to “tune in” at a particular time.

    July 16, 2010
  27. Randy Jennings said:

    Sure, Tracy, I get that. As I said, I think it’s a worthwhile experiment, especially the streaming of additional meetings of selected boards and commissions. But in terms of council meetings alone, people could already “tune in” to watch on NTV if they were so inclined. They could Tivo it, if the broadcast was also at an inconvenient time.

    The added flexibility of enabling interested people to watch online at their convenience is a nice amenity, but it has not actually added any accessibility that wasn’t already there. It just uses a different delivery mechanism. We’ll see if it does anything to change (for better or worse) the level and quality of civic engagement, and if that benefit is worth the price.

    July 17, 2010
  28. Randy Jennings said:

    Oops. Missing word in the second paragraph. Streaming video of council meetings “has NOT added any accessibility that wasn’t already there.”

    July 17, 2010
  29. kiffi summa said:

    Well, Randy , I think it is undeniable that the KYMN live streaming HAS added access that was not there i.e., I am a person who does not have cable and who does not have Tivo. I daresay I am not alone in that ‘lack’.

    For the very small cost to the city budget (is it $250 a month?) I think it is a bargain for a council that has emphasized communication from day 1.

    I also think it allows a person to watch at home and then drive the five minutes to city hall just for the item they wish to make a comment on, rather than sitting through the entire meeting.
    The added feature of KYMN taking the time to index the meeting, so that a person may watch ONLY the part they have some relevant interest in, is a very helpful feature.

    In other words: Praised … NOT “damned if they do” (#18.1)

    July 17, 2010
  30. Tracy Davis said:

    Randy, I don’t have cable or Tivo either – the only way I can watch is either to attend the meetings, or view on KYMN. And it’s also the only option for people who have satellite TV, since the cable channels aren’t included.

    July 17, 2010
  31. William Siemers said:

    Ok…back to budget cuts: Cities throughout the US are contracting out services…from police to janitors.

    I wonder if the city has even spoken to Rice and Dakota counties about exploring the option of sheriff’s departments providing police protection??? And how much could be saved by doing so? Do we need a new safety center when a few years down the line it will sink in that economies of scale make county protection a much more affordable option?

    July 19, 2010
  32. Griff Wigley said:

    William, as for contracting out for city services, here’s an extreme example from this week’s NY Times: A City Outsources Everything. Sky Doesn’t Fall.

    City officials last month fired all of Maywood’s employees and outsourced their jobs.While many communities are fearfully contemplating extensive cuts, Maywood says it is the first city in the nation in the current downturn to take an ax to everyone.

    The school crossing guards were let go. Parking enforcement was contracted out, City Hall workers dismissed, street maintenance workers made redundant. The public safety duties of the Police Department were handed over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

    July 21, 2010
  33. Griff Wigley said:

    Anyone know if the Council reestablished the position of the Welcome Center Coordinator last night?

    July 21, 2010
  34. Tracy Davis said:

    Funny, Griff, I posted this link on the wiki thread before I saw you put it here!

    July 21, 2010
  35. kiffi summa said:

    Was doing the Observing for the LWV… so yeah… Council voted 4-3 to table ’til the Aug 3 meeting.

    C. Pownell had asked C. Zweifel to table the issue (Zweifel had asked for the reconsideration) because C. Pownell had taken the initiative to hold some meetings with the Hispanic community, hoping to gain more relevant info. The Mayor and C. Pokorney had attended the first meeting; it appears other councilors were not aware of the meetings being held. Their was some discussion of proper procedure.

    I believe C. Pownell’s intent was all good; it appears she included the Mayor and the relevant Ward rep,(Pokorney) and had the best of intentions; possibly not the best process which would have been more public at the full council.

    July 21, 2010
  36. kiffi summa said:

    Forgot to mention that I believe this agenda item was titled specifically to avoid controversy. It is true that the position also entailed the Welcome Center duties , that may have been the majority of the job’s hours, but the Controversy centered around the elimination of the Interpreter position which was the other part of that job.

    The titling of agenda items bears watching…

    July 21, 2010
  37. […] City of Northfield catches flack from time to time about the city website, ffailure to employ social media, lack of transparency in government, and other “failure to communicate” issues.   And […]

    April 3, 2011

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