Are we All Touching the Same Camel?

Published date01 June 2005
Date01 June 2005
Subject MatterArticles
Exploring a Model of Participation in Budgeting
University of Oklahoma
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Theoryoffers a vast quantity of normative prescriptions concerning citizen participation in budget decisions. Yetcit-
ies strugglewith this activity and report unsatisfactory outcomes. Why does this occur? It may be because, similar to
the parable of the blind men describing the differentparts of the camel, the extant literature suggests so many vari-
ables but does not integrate what we know to see the whole picture, nor does it eliminate variables having little
explanatoryvalue and there has been limited systematic testing of hypotheses in this area. Tomanage the complexity
caused by a multiplicity of variables, the authorstest a causal model with four different factors (structure, partici-
pants, process, andmechanisms) thought to influence effective citizen participation outcomes on cases of two mid-
western cities. In this limited application, the model shows promise for predictive validity.
Keywords: citizen participation; local government budgeting; municipal government
How best to involve citizens in government decision processes has been a concern since the
creation of the nation, when the founding fathers struggled with questions of representation.
Participation is an intermediate outcome thought to lead to increased satisfaction with and
trust in government when the input is used to align citizen preferences with decisions made
by their representatives. Berman (1997) finds that participation reduces cynicism about local
government, thus providing some understanding of the perceived value of this practice.
Theory offers many normativeexpectations and prescriptions to guide the practice of citi-
zen participation in budgeting. Yet, in practice, cities struggle with this activity (Ebdon,
2002). Cities have tried different ways to gather input butreport weaknesses with each, such
as being nonrepresentative, too costly, and time consuming. City officials further suggest
that they institutionalize few mechanisms (Franklin & Ebdon, 2004) and can seldom point to
budgetary outcomes that are direct outgrowths of their citizen participation efforts. So
although the literature is nearly unanimous in concluding that participation is valuable, in
practice, the value is unproven.
Given persistent scholarly and practitioner interest on this topic, this research article
poses the question: What factors make citizen participation in budgeting decisions effective?
Reviewing the vastbody of literature suggests that we have been describing different aspects
of causal relationships, but as in the parable of the blind men who do not compare their
knowledge to realize that they are all talking about different parts of a camel, little is being
done to integrate our understanding. Some authors emphasize the nature of the participants
Initial Submission: August 19, 2003
Accepted: January 12, 2005
DOI: 10.1177/0275074005275621
© 2005 Sage Publications
as playing a key role in participation effectiveness (Boschken, 1992, 1994; Franklin, 2001).
Others argue that, to have effective participation, public officials must pay attention to the
mechanisms used to gather input (Bryson, 1995; Simonsen & Robbins, 2000). Still others
claim that citizen input is valid only if participants have ranked their preferences and indi-
cated their willingness to pay (Glaser & Hildreth, 1996; Wilson, 1983). Our review of the lit-
erature aggregates the various prescriptions into four groups of factors thought to influence
effectiveness: the structure of the city, the types of participants, the mechanisms used to
foster participation, and the process itself.
To answer the research question about what factors make citizen participation in budget-
ing decisions effective,we start by reviewing the literature in these four areas. Next, we apply
these factors to the cases of two midwestern cities to see how robust the fit is between theory
and practice. This analytical exercise is also useful for identifying areas where cities can
make targeted changes to different variables to enhance the outcomes from participation in
budgeting. We suggest that changing some variables would entail a great deal of time and
effort by certain actors for little change in outcomes. On the other hand, administrative actors
can more easily change some variables and the results could exceed the costs. The contribu-
tion of this form of analysis is that we can test the predictive validityof the extant literature by
organizing it into the four factors. We can use the resulting model not only to explain why a
city achieves a certain level of outcomes but also to suggest where they can target
interventions to improve outcomes from participation processes.
Citizen participation in budgeting is a topic receiving much attention in the literature.
Empirical findings and normative prescriptions have simultaneously reached both comple-
mentary and contradictory conclusions. This section reviews literature on the four factors
commonly described as influencing the effectiveness of citizen participation.
City Structure
Theorists claim that there are several characteristics of a city that make it likely that city
officials view citizen participation as a valuable activity. Three factors related to city struc-
ture have received the most continued attention in the literature: the size of the city, the form
of government, and the legal requirements governing formal opportunities that a city must
provide for citizens to speak about the budget. Concerning the size of the city, Ebdon (2002)
finds that larger cities are more likely to provide formal opportunities for citizen input than
are smaller cities. Part of the explanation for this practice may be that officials in smaller cit-
ies have more opportunity to interact with citizens during informal activities, such as social
club meetings or school activities (Saltzstein, 2003). Professional organizations such as the
International City and County Management Association (ICMA, 1999) and the National
Academy of Public Administration (NAPA,1999) have long touted the importance of citizen
participation, no matter the form of government. However, Kweit and Kweit (1981) suggest
that the city manager form of government, with the presence of a full-time professional
administrator, is more likely to seek citizen input than other forms of government.
Nalbandian (1991) confirms this with his conclusion that the manager has a “commitment to

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