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City of Pittsburgh — Capital Budget

Posted on Oct 10, 2017 in facilitation, personal work, service design

In June of 2015, the City of Pittsburgh convened two Deliberative Community Forums to provide residents with an opportunity to add their voice to the process of creating the City’s 2016 Capital Budget. In previous years, the public’s only opportunity to influence budgeting decisions came after a budget was drafted by the Mayor and submitted to City Council for review, revisions, and adoption.  In 2014, public comment sessions attracted less than three dozen participants. The Mayor decided to convene Deliberative Community Forums to provide residents with a more robust way to share their ideas about the Capital Budget.

In addition, the forums were scheduled to provide residents with an opportunity to add their input earlier in the decision-making process. The forums were held after the Mayor had announced his priorities but before he received funding proposals from City departments and City Council members.

As a result, the forums were expected both to increase the influence of the public and enhance the knowledge of those who develop funding proposals. This shift in timing was a key element in engaging local stakeholders who helped encourage participation.

The Office of the Mayor, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Office of Community Affairs (OCA) worked with consultants from the Art of Democracy to organize the Deliberative Community Forums.

Establishing the Agenda

The Office of the Mayor and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) led development of the agenda, discussion guide, and surveys. As these materials were developed, OMB solicited input from key decision-makers, including City Department Heads and City Council Members, about what types of input would be most useful and what types of information would need to be provided so that residents could provide informed input.

The final agenda asked for residents to provide input on the following questions:

  • How well do you think that the Priorities identified by the Mayor will address the needs of the City and the needs of you and your neighbors?
  • What other priorities might you add to the list?
  • What types of Capital Projects do you think will be most helpful for the City and your neighborhood in the coming year?
  • What specific needs would you and your neighbors like the City to address in the coming year?

Developing Briefing Materials

Both a discussion guide and presentation were developed thru an iterative process with the Mayor’s office, OMB, OCA, and consultants from the Art of Democracy.

Both the Discussion Guide and the Briefing Presentation included the following

  • Explanation of the distinction between a Capital and an Operating budget
  • Explanation of the process for developing the Capital Budget (including an explanation of how the forums were a change to this process)
  • Listing of the priorities identified by the Mayor,
  • Funding amounts and example Capital Projects from the previous year’s budget (These were provided both to inform and to spur the imagination of residents who attended the forum).

The Discussion Guide was made available to those who preregistered for the forums. However, preregistration was not required. As a result, the Discussion Guide was developed with the assumption that participants would not have the opportunity to review materials prior to the forum; instead, the Discussion Guide is best used as a resource during the forums. At the forum, participants were encouraged to review the Discussion Guide after they checked in, during the Briefing Presentation, participants received guidance that helped them to use the Discussion Guide as a way to follow along with the presentation, and participants were guided to relevant sections of the Discussion Guide by the moderators during the small-group discussions.

Developing Surveys

The survey was designed to capture confidential input on budget priorities. The survey solicited no demographic or personally identifying information; although, participants were given the option of providing name, address, neighborhood, and email contact.

Participants were asked to rank the five priorities identified by the Mayor’s priorities individually as “Important” “Somewhat Important” or “Not Important.”  In addition, they were provided an open-ended question soliciting additional priorities. The survey also included open-ended questions soliciting ideas for Capital Projects that addressed City-wide needs and neighborhood specific needs.

Finally, the survey sought to measure the participant experience and potential for increased engagement in the future.

Recruiting Resource/Expert Panel

The panel for the forums included City department heads and leaders of city authorities typically not directly accessible by the general public. After the forum, the panelists said they were very pleased that the process lead to an informed dialogue rather than confrontational encounters. Many panelists lingered after the forum to continue their interaction with residents.

Recruiting Participants

The Office of Community Affairs (OCA) led recruitment efforts, which relied on OCA staff, elected officials, and outreach to key community stakeholders through Community Development Corporations (CDC), neighborhood associations, and social media channels.

Geographic and Neighborhood representation was a foremost concern for the City. Pittsburgh boasts of having over 90 distinct neighborhoods, and residents’ affiliation with and allegiance to neighborhoods are deeply felt.  The OCA produced a flyer advertising the forums. This flyer was distributed by OCA staff that attended regularly scheduled community meetings in the month preceding the forums. The flyer was also made available electronically to be shared broadly through community-based networks. Community Development Corporations were specifically encouraged to have at least one representative attend the forums.

Additionally, the OCA met with all members of City Council. They explained that the forums were a new opportunity for residents to speak with department leaders prior to the formal creation of the budget and they provided copies of the flyer for them to share with their constituents.

The OCA also made use of social media by creating Facebook events that were widely shared by City staff members and by having the Mayor encourage attendance at the forums on Twitter.

To monitor the effectiveness of recruitment efforts, the OCA set up an online registration form. This enabled the OCA to identify where additional recruiting efforts were needed. Based on this monitoring, the OCA was able to draw on relationships and networks with nonprofit groups working in specific neighborhoods to encourage attendance by residents from typically underrepresented communities.

The initial forum also provided opportunities to increase participation for the second forum, which was held three weeks later. The seventy participants at the first forum more than doubled resident participation from the prior year. These participants were encouraged to promote the second forum through their networks and through social media. Council members and community leaders were invited to observe the first forum to enhance their understanding and increase the likelihood they would promote attendance at the second forum. After the first forum, the OCA made note of which neighborhoods were represented and made additional contact with organizations working within neighborhoods that had not been well-represented at the first forum. More than 120 people attended the second forum. In all, nearly 200 participants attended the forums, with nearly all the neighborhoods of the city having some representation.

Recruiting/Training Moderators for Small-Group Discussions

The OCA recruited moderators for the forum from the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA), a program run through the Mayor’s office to encourage more informed, effective and inspired community and civic leadership by giving City residents an opportunity to learn about their local government. The Art of Democracy recruited moderators from its established network of volunteers, including the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and The Center for Victims Dialogue and Mediation Services. Volunteers received a 90-minute training in the principles of Deliberative Democracy and the protocols for a Deliberative Community Forum.

Logistics: Planning And Hosting The Forum

The OCA managed logistics for the forums, including site selection, online and on-site registration, and coordinating catering. When choosing sites for the forums, the OCA sought to highlight City-owned facilities that were supported and maintained by funds from the Capital Budget. Both forums were held at community centers that provided services to seniors and activities and programming for all ages. To promote inclusion, each community center was handicapped accessible and readily accessed by numerous public transit routes.

Assessing Results

Analysis by City of Pittsburgh staff and interns showed the forums dramatically increased public awareness of and participation in the Capital Budget process. The nearly 200 forum participants included residents from nearly all the City’s neighborhoods.

Overwhelming majorities affirmed each of the five priorities identified by the Mayor. In addition, five additional priorities emerged from the responses: affordable housing, community development, green infrastructure, infrastructure management, and public safety. (While identified as priorities by residents, these might also be regarded as aspects to be emphasized while pursuing the five priorities identified by the Mayor.) Participants also identified over 160 unique Capital Projects. The projects proposed by residents had a broad geographic distribution. The OMB prepared a report of the survey results, which included a geographic mapping of the projects proposed by residents. This report was shared with all City departments and with City Council members.

City officials that served on the panels had very positive public interactions. In terms of participants assessment of the forum, most participants agreed that the process achieved the following:

  • Gave them an understanding of the issues involved when developing the City’s Capital Budget,
  • Caused them to consider points of view that they had not previously considered,
  • Made them feel as though their voice had been heard by the City,
  • Allowed the sharing of stories and experiences with residents from other parts of the City, and
  • Made them more likely to become engaged in making their neighborhood stronger.