budget consultation


Let’s be honest, for some councils, budget consultation has traditionally been nothing more than a tick-box exercise, going through the process without putting in serious effort.  One of the reasons is that there is a sense that only the ‘usual suspects will respond because the vast majority of people are completely disengaged. I think this is a mistake because, done well, budget engagement provides an opportunity to really connect with the public about the work of the local authority and why that work is important to so many people’s lives.

There is a second reason why it is so important, particularly this year. The battle to balance the books for most councils is becoming harder, which inevitably will have an impact on the services that people receive. Councils need to protect their reputation, which means going above and beyond to explain the issues that they are facing, why they are occurring and what they are doing about it.


So, here are my ten tips for planning an engagement exercise that can really move the dial.


  1.       It’s about place, not bureaucracy

The first mistake some make is getting stuck in bureaucratic language. Yes, it is a council budget, in reality, it is a budget for the place where we live, and will it affect everyone. Thinking in these terms when it comes to marketing will automatically elevate the importance of process.

  1.       Drop the pie charts

There is nothing worse than seeing a budget consultation leaflet that has a pie chart of a council budget which uses the council budget description terms. For most people, this is a foreign language. Drop the pie chart and language, instead use terms that people will understand. For example, if £10m is spent on ‘Governance’ translate to a term like ‘Running the Council’.

  1.       Explain the financial challenges in a way that people can relate to

It’s difficult to explain the financial mess that most councils are in because council budgets have not been cut. The challenge is keeping up with demand for services and inflation. Agree with your finance director on how much the council budget has changed in, say, a ten-year period. If you considered inflation and the cost of rising demand for social care, how much has the budget changed during that period? For many, it is a drop in spending power of about 25%. I like to equate this to a household budget. If you were bringing home £2,000 a month and suffered a salary drop of £500 – how would you cope? You would have to make painful decisions that will have a huge impact on your family. That's the situation most councils are in.

  1.       Show the quest for value for money

Whether people think that their council is providing value for money or not has a big bearing on overall perceptions of the Council. That's why it is so important to demonstrate to people how their council is “squeezing the toothpaste tube” to make the £1 in their pockets go further.  On council tax, I always compare rises in council tax with other utility bills (water, electricity, and gas) over a ten-year period. It is easy to get the comparisons online.  Put the figures in a bar chart and you will see a massive difference, which will show people how their council has kept tax rises in line with or below inflation.

  1.       Importance of storytelling

If you work for a unitary or county council, between a third and a half of what the council spends will be in areas that are virtually invisible. That's why it is so important to use storytelling techniques to explain to people how children and adult service budgets are spent. The use of human stories really brings home how important this work is and the positive impact it has on people's lives.

  1.       Make it easy and meaningful for people to participate

Drop the usual dreary survey where people are asked to prioritise council services and start to think differently. A few years ago, some councils tried ‘participatory budgeting’ where people were asked to make real choices about how to spend money. In practice, it was very difficult to deliver. Yet the principle is a good one. My favourite process, which isn't difficult or costly to implement, is to give people a set number of coins and ask them to allocate them across service delivery themes. Play in how the Council budget has changed, for example, ‘Ten years ago we had 50 coins to spend. Now, because of x, y, z, we only have 35 – how would you spend them?’ Describe the themes as areas of delivery that people will understand. For example, “Protecting the vulnerable” is meaningless because it is far too broad and will skew the results. Break it down to areas like “helping people with learning difficulties live independently in the community “ and “caring for older people”.

While the “Coin game” will give you quantitative data, you will still need qualitative insight too. You can do this through engagement events (see below) and by agreeing on the questions that you need to ask (normally no more than five).

  1.       Get out there

Forget “drop-ins” but do think about an exhibition in major footfall areas. It’s a great way to show visibility. Bring along 3 or 4 tablets and encourage as many people as possible to tell you how they would spend the coins. In my experience, you will get a great response and it also provides an opportunity to get under the skin of how people think by having real conversations.

  1.       Use influencers and ambassadors

It is especially difficult to engage younger people on a budget setting but that should not stop us from trying. Why not spend a small amount of money to identify and work with young social media influencers in your area who can engage others and encourage them to tell us how they would spend their coins?

  1.       Think stakeholders

There will be lots of people who have a vested interest in the process or other people who are particularly important. Brainstorm who these people are. First, agree on the categories of people that you need to engage with (for example, Government, business, VCS, education, faith group, etc). This will ensure that you don’t miss anyone when it comes to those all-important briefings and targeted communications. Some groups of stakeholders will help you disseminate information to others – mark them out.

  1.   Don’t forget evaluation… and optimisation

Want to really impress your CEO or Leader? Think through at the beginning what evaluation metrics you will collect and how you can benchmark performance with previous years.  Ideally, there should be three categories (1) How many people you are reaching (very easy to monitor on digital channels (2) How many people are interacting (clicks, likes, shares), and (3) how many people are completing the survey/coin game. Break the data down into different audience groups to help you monitor the performance of who you are reaching throughout. If the response is lower from certain demographic or geographical groups, why not apply a small paid media budget to reach them online?  Longer term, you may be able to track changes in perception through a survey.



Simon Jones is the Director of Communications at Westco He has worked as Director in local government communication and policy since 2007.

Need resources to help run your council budget consultation? Email Simon@westcocommunications.com


Simon Jones


Most council (or Combined Authority) teams are in the middle of planning consultation on budget setting  – yet how do we really drive audience engagement in a way that is meaningful?


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