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Walnut Creek: Priority Based Budgeting

This is a good example of:

Getting community buy-in for budget allocations via participatory processes & and priority setting


Walnut  Creek is a small community the eastern San Francisco Bay Area. Although the community ranked its quality of life as “high” in 2009, local leaders realized its finances and spending were not sustainable.  The city decided to deliberate difficult conversations of service cuts and/or revenue increases with the community.  However, they knew any conversation would need an informed community as partner.

Rather than produce an update to the previous year’s budget (and to get the community’s attention), the city turned to graphics and storytelling. The city took several steps to develop a new process:

  • They convened an unconventional team, which included journalists, graphic designers and a retried public administrator;
  • The city held a brainstorming session, developing a list of programs that residents valued most highly;
  • This  team identified three main messages:  (1) The city manages resources on behalf of the community in a thoughtful and effective way; (2) Walnut Creek has an outstanding quality of life thanks to long-standing partnerships among elected leaders, city staff and the community; and (3) Economic challenges require new community-supported solutions if Walnut Creek’s quality of life is to continue.
  • The city had already embarked on use of priority based budgeting (determining spending based on how programs meet community goals), so the goal-setting aspect was somewhat familiar

The city then took budgeting to the people. To demystify the budgeting process, the team used images and graphics, rather than binders full of documents. Each of Walnut Creek’s seven priority-based budgeting goals has its own chapter with a mix of short articles and graphics.  They created a 20-page report called A Community Connected: The Budget Story.

The Budget Story interspersed portraits & quotes from staff and community members  to make the message more personal.  Copies were sent with the local newspaper to ensure broad distribution.  The California League of Cities has a case study of The Budget Story.


Key Quote:

"Too many agencies drown people in numbers when they try to communicate about their budgets. But a budget is really a story about choices and challenges, and who doesn't like a good story?" Gayle Vassar, Communications and Outreach Manager, Walnut Creek CA

URL link to Main Resource:

Project Location :

Walnut Creek California, US

Development Context:

Inner Ring Suburb




City of Walnut Creek, Walnut City Task Force on Fiscal Health

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