How Ottawa budgets

How Ottawa budgets
Posted on July 20, 2015 | Erwin Dreessen | Written on July 20, 2015
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Author's Note:

Author's Note:

Faced with dismal turnout at official budget consultations, the small army of communications wizzards at City Hall came up with a new idea.  Neither politicians nor staff appear to understand, or are willing to admit, what's really wrong with the process.

How Ottawa budgets

The City of Ottawa has recently made efforts to make municipal budgeting somewhat less mysterious.  On June 24, 2015, the City Treasurer held a "primer" session on budget basics and the following day Mayor Watson and senior City staff held a 1-hour town hall phone-in.  Here are the links to:

+ a summary version of "Budget 101"

+ Marian Simulik's slides (1 MB) 

+ Marian Simulik's video (40 minutes)

+ The Mayor's 1-hour town hall audio and verbatim transcript

+ a story by Emma Jackson in the Metroland weeklies about these initiatives (June 26).  The article compares the turnout at this tele-townhall (50 dialed in, a dozen asked questions) with what the Mayor and all "core city" Councillors faced in a "public consultation" on the 2015 Budget -- 20 people showed up then.

Comment

This initiative came about as a result of a submission by the Treasurer of the FCA (Federation of Citizens' Associations) during the 2015 Budget "considerations" by the City's super-Standing Committee (FEDCO) on March 3, 2015. Newly elected Councillors also have been heard to grumble that they have little chance to influence budget decisions.

A tele-town hall, no matter when held, will not change the fact that the Budget is pretty much written by senior bureaucrats and the Mayor's office (rejecting or accepting proposals from staff). They hold all the power.

The "Budget 101" data are fair enough but trend data (over at least the last five years) would be extremely helpful, as would restructuring into meaningful decision-oriented categories.  And how about providing substantive briefing information -- at present, the information provided in Budget documents is often near-useless; see, e.g., the few lines offered by the Forestry Department.

The other problem with town hall-type "consultation" is that, once it catches on, it could easily be swamped by special interests.

Shortcuts won't do.  Genuine public engagement is what is needed.  A significant dialogue with members of civil society on what the Budget should/should not contain would be so much better, based on digestible analysis of past trends.

Erwin - 18 July 2015

About The Author

Retired economist (Ph.D., Berkeley, 1972) Co-founder (1997) and former chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital.  Wrote an annotated bibliography on what sustainability means for businesses (2009) --... More