U.S.A. Quite often, the most involved a U.S. citizen will be in politics is when he or she votes for a president every four years. Local governments, in turn, tend to have much less participation from their citizens, be it because the latter are less concerned, or because fewer measures are in place for them to actually make an impact beyond holding protests. In New York and other cities, appointed community boards have been implemented, yet their function is strictly advisory.

As such, the United States differs from other countries, where more measures have been put into force so that residents can actually have an impact, specifically on how governments use their funds. This “participatory budgeting,” which originated in Brazil in the late 1980s, has since then expanded to hundreds of other cities.

But what can increased participation of citizens, be it through participatory budgeting or otherwise, actually achieve?

Researchers Milena I. Neshkova and Hai (David) Guo of Florida International University published a paper titled “Citizen Input in the Budget Process: When Does It Matter Most?” in the American Review of Public Administration in 2013. In it, they examine the effects of public participation on organizational effectiveness, to be exact, on four diverse stages of the budgeting process: information sharing, budget discussion, budget decision and program assessment.

In an exclusive interview, ROOSTERGNN spoke with Milena I. Neshkova about the study and what impact increased engagement of citizens in municipal governments can actually have.

How does the budgeting process work and what steps are involved?

Milena I. Neshkova: The budget cycle, or the budget process, consists of four stages—preparation, legislative consideration and approval, implementation, and evaluation and audit. In the first stage, usually the executive branch initiates the process by putting together revenue estimates and budget requests of each agency for the next fiscal year. Then, the proposed executive budget undergoes legislative consideration. After the legislature approves the budget and the governor signs on it, it moves to the implementation stage. At this stage, agencies deliver services using the money authorized/appropriated by the legislature. At the end of fiscal year, there is an internal and external review and audit of the previous fiscal year’s budget. Executive and legislative branches interact at all stages of the budget process.

At which steps can citizens be involved?

Theoretically, citizens can be involved in each of the stages. At the preparation stage, agency can seek citizens’ input in order to set up the priorities in terms of service delivery. It is required to schedule public hearing before the budget is approved. Citizens are directly affected at the implementation stage when the services are delivered with the monies allocated. The citizen input during the final review stage definitely helps the next fiscal year’s budget preparation.

You argue in your paper that public input is important early on in the process.

According to our analysis that we present in the paper, citizen input matters more at the initial stage (when agencies collect information in order to prepare their budget requests) and final stage (when assessment are being made). Normatively and practically, if citizen input comes at the early stage, it can be considered and incorporated into the budget priorities of public agencies.

If it is important, why then do we not tend to see this?

First, budgeting is a complicated and thorny activity and the public may lack sufficient knowledge in order to provide meaningful and useful input. Often citizens need to be educated first about the intricacies and trade-offs associated with budget decisions. Second, it is costly and time consuming to seek citizen input during the budget process. It is much cheaper to just rely on the expertise of budget specialist.

What are the best ways to solicit public input?

There are various ways to solicit public input, e.g. public hearings, focus groups, citizen advisory boards. Our paper offers an extensive list of various mechanisms used by governments to seek citizen input. However, each participatory mechanism has advantages and disadvantages. Prior research indicates that mechanisms involving two-way communication are preferable because they allow for greater exchange of ideas and discussion between administrators and citizens. In our paper, we posit that administrators should apply a combination of methods, hoping that the disadvantages of one mechanism can be offset by the advantages of another.

On average, is technology or human contact most effective?

Our paper does not really touch upon the issue of technology. But, in our opinion, technology is, in fact, changing the ways citizen interact with their governments. The use of social media allows residents to report problems in real time and this puts increasing pressure on governments to respond to citizens’ requests and do so in a timely manner. However, the new technologies come with their own intrinsic problems and biases and we should not forget that even the most sophisticated technologies often require intelligent manual override and adjustment.

What kind of effects are seen when citizen participate more?

Some studies suggest that the lack of citizen participation might contribute to taxpayer revolt, like in the case of Proposition 13 in California. In a democracy, policy decisions should follow public preferences. Supposedly, with public input, agencies’ resource allocation decisions will better reflect citizen preferences. In addition, prior research shows that participatory budgeting can lead to a more efficient, effective, and equitable allocation of public resources. The equitable outcomes are particularly observed in some participatory budgeting experiments as the one in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, for example, where the populace has been given the right to participate in both preparing and carrying out the municipal budget.

Why is public input so important?

The importance of public participation stems from the principle that those affected by public policies should have a meaningful and equal opportunity to influence policy outcomes. Moreover, citizens possess practical knowledge and local experience and thus can provide public managers with context-specific information that might not otherwise be available. According to participatory scholars, the diversity of policy environments requires the use of context-specific means to achieve public goals. Based on their local knowledge, citizens can also warn administrators about some unintended consequences of policy decisions and thus prevent costly errors. Finally, citizens can offer innovative solutions to public problems that would have not emerged from traditional administrative approaches.


Milena I. Neshkova is an assistant professor of Public Administration at Florida International University. Dr. Neshkova earned her Ph.D. from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University in 2008. She also holds MPA from Indiana University and MA in Journalism from Sofia University. Her research interests focus on the issues of bureaucracy and democracy, and how to achieve a more responsive, fair, and accountable public administration. Dr. Neshkova has taught various courses in public budgeting, financial management, political economy, research methods, and statistical techniques at graduate and undergraduate levels. Her work has been published in Public Administration Review, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, American Review of Public Administration, Governance, Policy Studies Journal, and Journal of European Public Policy.

Hai (David) Guo is an assistant professor of Public Administration at Florida International University. His research focuses on state and local public finance and budgeting. Dr. Guo holds his Ph.D. degree in Public Policy from the Joint Doctoral program of public policy of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy. He obtained his master degree in Economics from Georgia State University and a master degree of Public Administration from Iowa State University. As a public administration scholar, he has published in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, American Review of Public Administration, Journal of Public Budgeting Accounting & Financial Management, Municipal Finance Journal, and Public Procurement.