Moving Beyond Political Ideology in the Budget Battle

By Dr. David N. Emanuelson

Having served as the chief executive officer for three local government leisure service agencies, and now as a college professor and consultant, I believe it is getting more difficult for professionals to justify their budgets to elected officials, particularly those involving capital expenditures.

Part of the reason is that the political climate has changed. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt used the forced leisure of the 25 percent unemployed Americans as political justification for the greatest expansion of leisure services in our history. During the 1930s, national parks were acquired and developed, and the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration assisted state and local park systems in expansion of their services. Today, though, the political climate is much different.

An example of how different the climate has become is exemplified in the 2009 economic stimulus package, an effort by Congress to mitigate our "Great Recession." During Congressional debate about the package, political pressure forced sponsors of the bill to exclude improvements to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as well as other national parks. The argument made by the bill's opponents was that current economic conditions made expenditures on leisure services seem wasteful. Evidently, in 2009, the forced leisure of Americans experiencing unemployment in excess of 10 percent did not carry the same necessity to serve them in 2009, as it did in the 1930s.

Taking the lead from the federal government, state and local government opponents of leisure services have used the political climate as an opportunity to not only avoid the expansion of leisure services, but to cut leisure service budgets, calling these types of expenditures wasteful. This has placed public service leisure service professionals in the position of justifying their budgets in ways they never have before.

In political science, to understand a problem is to understand its possible solutions. Leisure service professionals understand that the public needs government-provided leisure services in these bad economic times more than they do in good economic times and that a solution is to get that message out. Leisure service professionals need to convince elected officials that just like other public policies, when the public has greater need for services, its government's responsibility to provide them.

Why is it government's responsibility to provide leisure services when the public needs them? Because that's how our republic is supposed to work. Elected officials are supposed to act in a way that reflects the will of the people. If they don't, then elected officials are acting in an anti-democratic fashion, one that requires they be removed from office.

But how are elected officials supposed to know what the public wants or needs? One way is to ask them. For other public policies, political pollsters ask the public all the time, sometimes on a daily basis. For instance, how Congressional representatives vote on national healthcare is usually a reflection of the poll numbers in their districts. If their district supports health care initiatives, representatives know that if they go against the will of the people, they will lose their jobs.

What leisure service professionals need to do is to remind their representatives that leisure services are just as important as any other public service. If federal, state and local professionals are willing to lobby on their own behalf, it's likely that federal, state and local elected officials will comply with the will of the people.

How is this done? By employing the same political polling techniques as other public policy analysts do. At all levels, including the local level, political polling is a simple and inexpensive technique that allows elected officials to know the will of the public and to act in a democratic way, serving the will of their constituents.

Polling can be done through traditional techniques such as mail or telephone polls. Leisure service professionals have used community needs assessment surveys to construct their comprehensive master plans for decades, asking questions about participation in leisure activities or the usage of leisure facilities. What they usually fail to do, though, is ask the tough questions—the ones about supporting initiatives or increasing their taxes.

In 2009, in a fiscally conservative rural Midwestern community of 13,000 people, the administrators of the local governmental unit did just that. Conducting a telephone poll of community members about the construction of a new recreation center, something fiscal conservatives on their board opposed, the leisure service agency found more people supported the initiative than opposed it, 45 percent compared with 36 percent. (See Figure 1.)

In 2009, in a fiscally conservative Midwestern suburban community, leisure service administrators asked combined mail and telephone survey respondents if they would increase their own property tax payments to build a new recreation center. More people said they would than not, 49 percent compared with 31 percent. (See Figure 2.)

Considering that these polls were conducted at the height of the "Great Recession" of 2009, they reflect the willingness of the public in some of the most fiscally conservative areas of the nation to increase their services as well as the taxes to pay for them.

Providing elected officials with this type of information allows them to make policy decisions that reflect will of the people. While these polls have been conducted for capital projects, they can also be conducted comparing the importance of leisure services to other services.

When they are, leisure service professionals and elected officials come away knowing the importance of parks and recreation at the federal, state and local levels. When there is no information about the importance of leisure services, elected officials are left with their political ideologies to guide them.


Dr. David Emanuelson is Assistant Professor of Recreation Administration at Aurora University, George Williams Campus, Williams Bay, Wis., a partner in the Public Research Group and the owner of Impact Planning.

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