We the People's Board ... want more say in city's budget

(Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

This is an opinion of the Daily News People's Editorial Board, a group of 10 citizens who gather to debate hot topics in the city. To hear more: philly.com/peb.

WE THE PEOPLE deserve more of a voice about where our money goes.

Over the next few months, our elected leaders will make decisions about the city budget - which means they'll make decisions about city priorities. They'll decide whether we should raise taxes or cut them, invest more in police or spend less on libraries. We want a say in those priorities.

Unfortunately, when the budget process kicks off in March, it won't include many big plans to get the public involved. Three years ago, the city was involved in workshops sponsored by WHYY and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, that helped inform the public and collect our feedback. But since then, it has retreated to choreographed events. Nor are Council's public comment sessions, where people yell at a few bored-looking Council members, the kind of engagement we're talking about.

Here are four easy steps for building a healthier democracy:

1: Be More Transparent. How many trucks does the Department of Sanitation have? We should be able to find this out easily. Right now, the city publishes spending by department, broken down by certain categories, like contracts and supplies. We need more detail, published online, and searchable.

The budget can't be transparent just for wonks. It also needs to be simplified for those of us who don't have the time or expertise to comb through it.

2: Build A Friendlier Guide. Each year, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority publishes a "Citizen's Guide" to the budget. Its 57 pages are packed with useful information, but and not exactly written in an accessible tone. Plus, it's a guide to understanding the budget, not participating in it. We want a user-friendly guide that shows citizens how to make our voices heard.

Of course any guide that shows citizens how to get involved with the budget would be painfully short - there's not much to say.

3: Introduce "Budget Month." The 2009 workshops educated citizens about where our money goes, and were structured in a way that solicited useful feedback for officials: Citizens worked in groups on that year's budget by choosing between revenue options and service cuts.

The city should make this an annual event. Every February, as the mayor prepares his budget, his senior staff should hold structured meetings with citizens. Over time, this will help build a more informed electorate, and develop leaders more responsive to the public.

Assuming, of course, those leaders follow Step 4.

4: Make it Count. An inevitable complaint about public meetings is that they're a dog-andpony show: Officials sit politely while citizens talk, then do what they want anyway. When this happens, it's a waste of time for citizens to get involved. This doesn't mean elected leaders have to take orders from people who attend budget workshops. That's not how democracy works. But we do want our leaders to consider citizens' advice, and, if they disagree, make a case for why. Basically, show citizens they're actually listening. If the city follows these four steps, residents will be better educated about the budget - and start to have more trust in our government.