Elliot Sim, New Zealand-based Business Development and Practice Lead, reflects on Wellington City Council’s Annual Plan ‘hands on’ community approach to balancing budget demands and steps through a holistic approach to budget consultation.
New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown in late March 2020 coincided with many councils’ Annual Plan processes, disrupting planned budgets and necessitating urgent rewrites.
The Wellington City Council’s Annual Plan 2020-21—Council’s budget for one financial year which sets out how it will fund projects, activities and services identified for that year—was written by staff working remotely and required many iterations to respond to a rapidly changing environment before it was released for public feedback.
Council’s draft annual budget included a preferred option of 5.1% rates increase after growth. This was below the 7.1% forecast in the 2018-28 Long-term Plan and the 9.2% signaled earlier in the year. However, the appetite for any sort of increase during the lockdown was unknown.
Wellington City Council Team Leader Planning and Reporting, Lloyd Jowsey, says Council set out to give residents the opportunity to understand the painstaking process of weighing up all of the demands for services, how they would be paid for as well as meeting legal and policy requirements.
“During lockdown the Council allocated $52m into supporting the city’s sectors, particularly the voluntary sector, and the homeless. We were constantly in the process of updating our budget before we could actually go out and consult on it,” he says.
While Council moved quickly to draft a proposed Annual Plan in the context of a global pandemic and subsequent national lockdown, it didn’t compromise on a holistic approach to community engagement.
Council’s approach to public engagement
Council set out to provide information on its proposed rates changes, its financial summary, fees and charges, work programme and what it was progressing. Council also wanted to communicate how it planned to respond to and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
To achieve this, the Council used the hub page feature, with each major piece of the Annual Plan puzzle presented on its own project page. This critical information was clearly presented on the project pages and further disseminated by community digital ‘wardinars’: a ward-specific Q&A webinar for the community to better understand local budget impacts. Additionally, the Council delivered a real-time and interactive data dashboard for the community to view and better understand the wider city feedback.
To deliver their community a ‘hands-on’ experience of balancing the realities of budget and service demands, the Council deployed Balancing Act, a simulated budgeting tool. Finally, multiple EngagementHQ tools were used throughout the consultation such as the Q&A tool to support various topics and a traditional submission form on the Survey tool.
Taking the approach of breaking the various topics down into individual projects meant residents could easily go to what interested them and not have to trawl through information-laden documents and could focus on a specific area of the Annual Plan of interest to them.
Pitching a budgeting tool and managing expectations
Council trialled Balancing Act to help residents grow their understanding of the Annual Plan decision-making process.
After some lockdown restrictions had been lifted, about 700 residents used the tool to move available funds around; balancing the budget was not required in this instance. Stakeholders were given the opportunity to directly provide their rationale for increased or decreased spending and where they sought to generate more or less revenue.
Lloyd says it’s imperative to manage expectations on how much influence people’s feedback via Balancing Act would have on Council’s final decision and pitched it as an educational exercise.
“Rather than saying this was a consultation on a budget, we really used the tool to help the community understand how a budget is put together, the decisions involved and how we use their money to deliver services to the community. The more people understand how a budget is developed and where money is spent, the more likely the community will have confidence in Council decisions—even the most challenging ones. We’ll continue to position Balancing Act as a community awareness/understanding tool.”
For instance, when the public indicated it wanted to reduce spending in a certain area, the Council is able to debate a decision in an informed way even if the final decision is different from what the community was indicating. Feedback from the simulated budget will help inform community outcomes, priorities and spending in future plans.
Lloyd says an interesting comment from the annual plan budget simulation has been that “Actually producing a balanced budget is really hard and we think that officers are getting it right.”
“It’s a bit unexpected and an interesting conclusion that they’re [the public] coming to because they understand how hard it is to balance a budget in a Local Government context.”
Live data custom dashboard for the public and Councillors
A live data dashboard gave residents real-time data which could be filtered during the consultation.
Anyone who visited the site could see who agreed or disagreed with a proposed approach to Council spending. The data could be filtered by suburb, gender, ethnicity and year of birth, while a table showed text responses (with identifying information omitted).
This approach had the effect of generating more participant activity.
“We could drive more people to the site. They saw the information on the dashboard, were interested in it and then went away to register and dive deeper into the project. “This is one approach which we want to use where possible in our future engagements,” Lloyd says.
Councillors also had access to a purpose-built, private dashboard which allowed them to analyse data as the consultation progressed. It kept them attuned to community sentiment throughout the consultation, helping to inform their final decision on the Annual Plan.
“We were able to see sentiment change during the consultation which meant that any element of surprise with the final result was minimized. We were also able to build our report around the dashboard—it made the process of analysis a lot more efficient, cleaner and just easier to do the final report on the consultation.”
While restrictions on people’s movements were in place, and with the Annual Plan out for consultation, Council felt it was important to digitally facilitate the kōrero (discussion/meeting) of residents on proposed rates rises and key priorities.
More than 300 residents tuned in to see the Mayor and Councillors from each ward answer questions on the issues facing the city, and what it meant for each community. Topics included priority projects, innovating streets initiatives, rates options, parking versus active modes of transport, whether anything had changed because of Covid-19, and how best to balance the books while the city recovers.
Over 500 questions were received during the webinars, either when people registered, or live during the broadcast. The recordings were publicly available on the project page as well as a selection of the questions and answers in written format.
Council’s decision on the Annual Plan and Looking to the Long-Term Plan
Wellington City Council Councillors formally adopted the Annual Plan and a 5.1% rates increase. Councillors also voted not to increase fees and charges for the year except for some waste and marina fees. Information collected using various engagement tools showed residents had largely accepted an increase of 5%, despite previously indicating a preference for the lower or zero increase options.
During the period affected by lockdown, Council also froze or forgave a range of fees, charges and rentals to help various businesses and organisations affected by Covid-19. On average, this meant a household in a home with a rating value of $700,000 might see about a $150 increase in their annual rates bill, providing that the rateable value hadn’t changed since the last rating year.
In terms of the Council’s approach to public engagement, it’s planning on implementing a similar process for its Long-Term Plan 2021-2031 project, underway in 2020/21.
The transparency of the Annual Plan process, coupled with multiple participation options, meant Council could collect and rely on robust data and have greater confidence in their decision-making during a time of significant uncertainty.