THICK versus THIN: how technology can improve public involvement in the budget process.

Author:Mack, Mark

Recently, governments have been considering what style of public engagement is most appropriate, and what technology works best with that style. In doing so, they are distinguishing between a "thin" and "thick" approach to public engagement--the difference between detailed approaches that require heavy, sustained involvement by the public (i.e., "thick") and broader, less detailed methods (i.e., "thin"). Thick engagement is generally understood to involve fewer people over longer periods of time, while thin approaches tend to reach more people with shorter time commitments. (1)

But is one approach better than the other when engaging the public on budget issues? Most public finance professionals are familiar with resource-intensive "thick" time engagement efforts such as budget hearings, citizen review boards, and finance committees. Likewise, they are familiar with the drawbacks and would gladly trade these approaches for something "thin" and more accessible to larger percentages of the public. Some governments are therefore asking how technology can improve public involvement in the budget process. Are there opportunities to add depth to traditionally "thin" engagement methods that involve large numbers of citizens in small ways? Are there better ways to simplify dense, "thick" financial information? Organizations are therefore exploring both thick and thin approaches in an effort to understand how each style can best be used to engage citizens in budgetary and financial issues.

In the past, neither approach seemed optimal. Simplifying complex issues like budget allocations often ignores important related issues. For example, take the classic challenge of where to make budget cuts. Online budgeting tools, which represent a thin engagement approach, can allow citizens to adjust allocations among departments, programs and priorities (e.g., cut 2 percent from the parks department and add it to the police department), but few address the complex issues associated with such a decision. Are some revenues earmarked specifically for parks? Do ordinances require particular service levels? Does the parks department have unfunded mandates?

Decision makers may also need to consider factors such as:

* Whether park-related actives reduce the need for crime prevention (e.g., police).

* If the majority of citizens prioritize parks above police.

* The possibility that a 2 percent decrease for the parks department might have a greater negative impact on parks than a 2 percent decrease in police department funding would have on police operations.


Terms like public deliberation, civic engagement, and public participation are used to describe a wide range of activities: This lack of clarity can be a problem when using consensus-building technology. In a 2004 article, Carol Ebdon and Aimee Franklin used the experiences of the City of Wichita, Kansas, and the City of Topeka, Kansas, to identify five basic mechanisms for budget engagement: public meetings, focus groups, advisory committees, surveys, and simulations. (3)

All have potential benefits, but simulations, even when done using nothing more than paper, pencil, and a calculator, have the greatest promise. The article cites positive comments from both staff and participants in Wichita's simulation. "The [citizens] do not appreciate the limits we face," said a staff member. "We wanted to find a way to get input and at the same time find a way to get them to appreciate our position." The simulation put participants in the shoes of policy makers, requiring them to think like citizens of the whole community rather than just...

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