Whitby Increases Participation by 7,750% with Citizen Budget
The Town of Whitby is a lakefront community that is home to more than 128,000 residents and more than 2,200 businesses. Every year, the Town engages residents in its budget process to help staff make decisions about the most important services and programs to the community. Before Ethelo, Whitby was holding in-person consultations that only a handful of residents attended. With Citizen Budget the Whitby team achieved a 7,750 per cent increase in direct budget participation. And the Ethelo data helped the finance team feel confident in the decisions they presented to Council.
Predicted Budget Support
Increase in Participation
When Erika Botond took on the Senior Manager of Communications role at the Town of Whitby in late 2019, she looked at their budget engagement process and immediately thought they could do better.
“We were relying on people to come to a council meeting, read a 500-page document and understand all the ins and outs,” she explains. “Not a lot of people have the time to do that or are that civically engaged.
“There would be on average six people at a meeting. Trying to get people engaged in a budget isn’t the sexiest of topics at the best of times.”
Then times changed with the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, and engaging online with their community became a necessity for the Town.
“We needed to find an online way to educate people about something that’s pretty complex but impacts everyone every day,” Botond explains. “How could we create a platform where we can share information, post videos and take them through the process of what goes into making a budget.”
Education and inclusion
The Whitby team was already aware of Ethelo’s Citizen Budget and saw the platform as the perfect solution for levelling up their 2020 budget engagement.
Botond says Ethelo’s decision algorithm is a great way to educate residents by showing them where their views fit within the broader community and how their choices about services impact the budget.
“People may say taxes are high at the beginning of the process,” she says. “But as they go through the Citizen Budget tool, it provides more awareness of the process and impacts of decisions they were making. The result was we saw users come away with a better understanding of where their taxes are going.”
She adds that Citizen Budget also lets the Town give people a lot of information in an easy-to-digest format that can be accessed anytime.
“It’s on their terms,” she notes. “When they have time to do it, they can go into the platform and understand what they want to get out of it. So it’s a way to reach many people with information at a time that meets their needs. Convenience is really the biggest piece of it.”
Speaking of convenience, Botond adds that the Ethelo team was critical in helping the Whitby team understand all the data they got and report back to leadership about it.
“The experience reporting back was excellent,” she says. “We had a number of interactions where we got the presentation to our senior leadership team to a really good place. I found the process collaborative and iterative, and the Ethelo team was open to understanding the story we wanted to tell.
It’s all about building trust
The ultimate impact from Ethelo for the Town of Whitby is the ability to deliver services to residents better because they understand what people want, Botond explains.
“We’re in the business of service delivery, and we want to deliver services that make a difference and impact people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “So it’s essential to understand what’s important from the resident’s perspective.”
“And we can report back to the community that this is what we heard and this is how we’re using the information they took the time to share with us. I think this demonstrates openness and transparency. People want to have a say in the municipal decision-making process, and the Citizen Budget platform enabled that.”
Botond adds that internal business partners were hesitant to try something new when Communications first decided to try Citizen Budget. But after seeing the results, they’ve realized the value Ethelo can deliver and how providing an open and transparent process for their residents helps build trust in the process.
“Now, they’re converted,” she notes. “I think that’s a testament to our collaboration. And they’re really excited to do it again this year. They’re looking to include the Ethelo data in their target report, so before the budget is even completed, they can share with council what they’ve heard from the community and why they’ve made these decisions.”
Botond says she’s also excited to use Citizen Budget again this year and plans to run a longer campaign supported by even more promotion.
“With Ethelo, we were able to demonstrate the value of getting people involved in the municipal decision-making process and highlighting what really matters to our community. At the end of the day, it’s all about building trust with our business partners internally and with our community more broadly.”