How to Disillusion the Public — DC’s Budget Engagement Forums

On February 9th, I was fortunate enough to have DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in my backyard at Jackson-Reed High School for a Budget Engagement Forum (BEF). The DC government advertised these forums as listening sessions to hear DC residents’ budget concerns and priorities. Topics ranged from the incredibly sexy issue of dedicated pickleball courts to less important subjects like affordable housing. Despite the ads, these forums were nothing more than dog and pony shows and insulting to anyone who bought into their premise.

The budget process begins well before any of these BEFs. In the fall of the year prior to the proposed budget’s fiscal year, the mayor negotiates agency-specific budgets with members of her administration. According to the Office of the Budget Director, this is a time- and labor-intensive series of negotiations between the Mayor’s office and the agencies she administers. After months of these meetings, the DC Council begins its agency performance oversight hearings in February. Once these hearings are complete, the Mayor submits her proposed budget to the DC Council for them to begin budget-specific hearings, culminating in a vote.

Curiously, BEFs are not mentioned in the officially endorsed overview of the budgeting process. That should give you an idea how much the Mayor’s Office really values them.

The BEF I attended was arranged like bingo night: a collection of tables in a high school gymnasium with numbers representing each table and worksheets given to each participant. But unlike bingo, representatives from each letter and number combination gave speeches extolling the services their representative agencies provide the public before you stamp. I must admit, the speech from the Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure was hilarious and convincing; you can watch the speech here.

The only other difference between the BEFs and bingo would be that participants are tasked not with stamping, but with splitting and allocating a theoretical $100 to 5 different governmental areas. When the leader of the table I was assigned explained the activity to us, the person to my left immediately asked which area would pickleball courts fall under and then allocated the lion's share of the $100 to “Infrastructure and Environment,” a perfect single issue voter. 

Once everyone finished allocating their respective ideal budgets, we were tasked with creating our table’s representative budget, which ended up being an average of everyone’s budgets. We then selected a single person to report our table's consensus to the Mayor. That was the entire public engagement process with the budget prior to DC Council submission. 

Let’s examine the BEF a little more closely. First, the Mayor’s BEFs ironically suffered from a lack of engagement from the actual public itself. What first struck me upon entering Jackson-Reed’s gymnasium was the number of DC Government officials and their relevant plus-ones that were in attendance. I was told that nearly everyone in the bleachers was affiliated with the DC government in some way, making up at least half of the audience just a few minutes shy of the start time. This shouldn’t be too surprising. A 2-hour event on a weeknight in a faraway upper Northwest suburb’s high school isn’t likely to draw many, no matter how meaningful the event promises to be.

Second, the Mayor’s Office didn’t sell the BEF to the public well. The Eventbrite description had this to say: “Join with fellow DC residents at budget engagement forums to share your values, priorities, and ideas with the Bowser Administration as the FY24 budget is developed.” This and other descriptions, some from the Mayor herself, emphasize that these forums are intended to incorporate the public’s input prior to her proposed budget submission to the DC Council, slated to happen sometime in March/April. This advertising does not guarantee the reader’s voice will be heard, and neither does it mention how the reader’s input would or even could be incorporated into the Mayor’s budget process. 

Third, the Mayor’s Office failed to deliver on its own meager promises to let DC residents “share your values, priorities, and ideas.” As I stated earlier, the only means by which the public could contribute to the budget conversation was through their own individual worksheets, which were rolled up into the table’s consensus. Even if individual worksheets carried any weight, the categories weren’t directly attributable to DC agencies, only to the titles of the Deputy Mayors who gave pitches for their respective categories at the start of the BEF. Were we supposed to believe we were allocating money to the Deputy Mayors themselves, who would then distribute funding to the agencies under their oversight?

The Mayor’s Office, a participant noted, hadn’t even outlined how the previous year’s budget was allocated under these same categories, leaving participants no actual understanding of the impact of their allocations. Participants were left with no context, no voice, and no process by which their meager voice would be incorporated into the budget process.

Fourth, the only real public engagement that occurred was unstructured and likely unintended by the Mayor’s Office. This type of direct engagement occurred at most once per table, when each spokesperson reported out their table’s consensus. Some spokespeople, like this author, were too meek to include anything beyond this consensus. Others were braver and spoke their truth, priorities, and ideas directly to the Mayor and everyone assembled. While these speeches were short, they were the only real instance where the public could inform the Mayor of its priorities. Of course, there’s no guarantee the Mayor was listening. 

A poorly advertised weeknight in suburbia, an engagement process with meaningless categories and no mechanism for incorporating said engagement, and the appreciated but underwhelming spurts of courageous public engagement made the BEFs a failure. At the end of the night, the Mayor claimed the BEF had helped inform her what services the public wouldn’t mind seeing cut in the future, in case DC doesn’t have the activity’s theoretical $100. A perfect nail in the coffin for the public’s impact that night.

The DC government is following an often-used playbook to offer a veneer of public participation without actually incorporating the public's views. Fortunately, people have developed responses to this manipulation, such as Sherry Arnstein's A Ladder of Citizen Participation. After witnessing and studying the disenfranchisement of diverse communities by Housing and Urban Development in the destruction of their communities in the 1960s, Arnstein devised her ladder to give formal structure to critiques of so-called public engagement. A Ladder is concise, engaging and incredibly important; I encourage everyone to give it a read.

In broad strokes, Arnstein identifies eight “rungs” on the ladder of citizen participation, spanning three groupings: Nonparticipation, Tokenism and Citizen Power. The BEFs could be best described under Nonparticipation, specifically the “Manipulation” rung. Arnstein argues that Nonparticipation activities “[have] been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to ‘educate’ or ‘cure’ the participants.” Manipulation, the bottom rung of citizen participation, is “...the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.”

How the BEF fits under Manipulation can be best seen in its name, Budget Engagement Forum. Engagement does not mean participation. The purpose of the BEFs was to engage the public, not to allow them to participate in the process. Participation would assume some level of impact and influence on the part of the public. To what end would the Mayor’s Office wish to engage the public through BEFs but not allow them to participate? That end would be public relations. 

These BEFs give the veneer of public participation and allow the Mayor to claim she has engaged the public when or if she is criticized for a lack of public participation in the budgetary process. To improve the BEFs, the Mayor should address the lack of public engagement, and the lack of honest and effective advertising, should deliver on the promises of what is advertised: real unstructured citizen participation.

Outside of the Mayor's sham budget engagement forums, the DC Council is beginning its battery of public budget hearings on March 27th lasting until April 13th. These hearings are slightly more meaningful to the public as you actually get to speak directly to your representatives and inform them of your concerns for the year's budget. Whether they will consider your testimony in their decision making is up to them.

To have the greatest chance that your testimony will actually be considered, I would recommend reading the DC Fiscal Policy Institute's resources on How to Testify Effectively Before the DC Council. During these hearings DC Council receives testimony from individuals, non-profits, agencies, and interest groups ranging from Quiet Clean DC, which successfully banned gas-powered leaf blowers, to the LGBTQ+ Budget Coalition. Individuals are allowed to sign up and testify on their own prerogative, to sign-up find the relevant hearing on this website's calendar ( click on the particular hearing and there should be instructions and an email address on how to sign up to testify. The previous DC Fiscal Policy Institute link also has general instructions on how to testify. Happy budgeting!

Note: Ryan Cudemus-Brunoli is the current Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 3F01 in Washington, DC. These views are his and do not necessarily reflect those of his ANC.

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