Beautiful Budgets: Opportunities and Gaps in Online Local Budget Engagement

This entry was contributed by on January 21st, 2016 at 3:33 pm and is filed under , , .
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Over the last few years, there has been a mini-explosion of websites that use visualization and interactivity to make government budgets easier to understand and navigate. In North Carolina, 2015 saw sites go live for Asheville, Raleigh, Cary and Buncombe County. Across the country, efforts have ranged from volunteer-led open source projects like Open Budget: Oakland to government-led efforts built on commercial platforms, like Chattanooga’s Open Budget App or Ohio’s Open Checkbook. Cloud services for open budgets have been launched by commercial ventures like OpenGov and Balancing Act, and by my own non-profit organization, DemocracyApps, which developed the platform that hosts the Asheville, Cary and Buncombe County sites. There has also been significant legislative activity, including the Data Act at the federal level and a new North Carolina requirement (section 7.17) that local governments publish budget and spending data to a central state transparency website.

All these initiatives are very much to be celebrated. They are the leading edge of a powerful and growing trend toward greater openness in local government and promise better citizen access to the critical financial information and decision-making that underlie nearly everything city and county governments do. However, it’s important to ask just where we’re going and how we’ll know that we’ve arrived. How do we ensure that open budget efforts actually improve community engagement and outcomes over other means for learning citizens’ priorities?

Let’s begin by examining just what a public budget is and what makes it good or bad.

A public budget encodes a community’s decisions about how to allocate scarce shared resources in order to meet its needs and to accomplish its goals. The budget must of course meet basic legal requirements and responsible fiscal standards. Beyond that, though, there are two key dimensions of public budget quality: legitimacy and effectiveness. A budget is legitimate if it is and is seen to be an accurate reflection of the values and priorities of the whole community. A budget is effective if it can reasonably be expected to accomplish the outcomes the community desires.

So where, then, do open budgets come in?

If we consider ‘open budget’ to mean nothing more than making budget data easier to access or simply making it more understandable to more people, then the connection between ‘open’ budgets and ‘good’ budgets seems to me tenuous at best. Opening the data is only a means to an end and, while transparency can limit illegitimacy and ineffectiveness, it does little to directly promote it. If we want open budgets to play a significant role in improving public budgeting, then I believe we need to consider a much more expansive definition. Here is mine:

An open budget

  1. is one created through a process which encourages and enables participation by all stakeholders to ensure that it reflects the values and priorities of the whole community, and
  2. makes clear the connection between allocated resources and expected outcomes in order to support robust discussion and testing of expected vs. actual impact.

That definition makes it quite obvious that we have a long way to go. Here are a four specific gaps I see.

  • Open budgets activity is sparse. According to the 2012 Census of Governments, there are 89,000 local government budgeting entities in the United States, not counting public institutions of higher learning. Against this backdrop, the open budgets movement has just barely begun. Further, most of the activity is concentrated in larger, wealthier municipalities, leading to a kind of digital divide in access to improved budget transparency and open process.
  • Open budgets are rarely designed to engage new kinds of stakeholders. Budget sites rarely differentiate either presentation or delivery channels to improve their ability to reach groups that have been historically under-represented. While interactive visualizations can make it easier to understand public financial data, they are not game-changers for reaching new stakeholders.
  • Open budgets are currently about presentation rather than process. Through visualizations and interactivity, open budget efforts make it easier to grasp budget data that is published during the budget-making process, but they rarely connect in any meaningful way to the process itself. As defined above, open budgets necessarily involve much more than machine-readable data and nice visualizations. There must be observable ways to see better community outreach and inclusion.
  • Open budgets rarely connect allocations to outcomes. At best, open budget efforts to date have done little more than link spending categories to revenue sources. Typically they do a poor job of telling citizens what spending is supposed to accomplish. To be fair, this is primarily a function of how budgets are presented and decided by the governments themselves, but it is an area of opportunity that has not so far been exploited.

In my next post I’ll reflect a bit on how we might begin to bridge these gaps.

In the meantime, I would love your comments. What have I got right or wrong about where we need to go? Are there other gaps that I haven’t identified?

23 Responses to “Beautiful Budgets: Opportunities and Gaps in Online Local Budget Engagement”

  1. Elmer Jackson

    Comments I hear around Albuquerque often include, “The actions and discussions behind the scenes before citizens are engaged are the significant drivers of final decisions. By the time we are involved, it is often too late.”

    • Eric Jackson

      I suspect that is true most places. The flip side, of course, is the tremendous difficulty in getting citizens engaged in those early stages. A key challenge in rethinking these processes is figuring out new ways to discover and engage those who care about particular issues, ways that are not so costly either to citizens or to local government.

  2. Melody Warnick

    I think there are a lot of us whose brains shut down at the word “budget.” Too many numbers, too many inscrutable categories. I’d love to see an open budget visualization that also includes some written content to explain, in layman’s terms, what things like “intergovernmental revenue” and “GIS appl services” mean–perhaps a pop-up box to say, “This is what this looks like in your town” or “This is where you might have seen this.” Also, what about an immediate way to gauge response and engage citizens? Comment boxes or surveys, perhaps?

    That said, I think Community Budgets is brilliant. Bring it to Blacksburg, Virginia!

    • Eric Jackson

      I agree. Often a few short explanations will win out over any number of cool visualizations. Explaining what is being talked about and connecting it to what people know is critical. One of the biggest challenges, of course, is finding the time to provide all these explanations – it’s almost impossible if each municipality has to do it individually. That’s where I think a combination of better shared standards for the budgets themselves plus platforms like the CBE that allow efforts for one community to be leveraged by others is so important.

      I love the idea of offering people a way to give feedback and it’s something I definitely plan to build into our own platform, but I believe it’s important to connect that to government and/or media partners to help make that feedback part of the greater process.

      Re: getting Blacksburg on the platform, all I need is a spreadsheet with the data and we can create a basic site (like the Cary one) in a matter of minutes for free. Feel free to reach out to me at @ejaxon on Twitter or email at eric [dot] jackson [at] democracyapps [dot] us.

  3. Keith Lane

    Interesting conversation here, and I appreciate your efforts at exploring what “open budgets” mean and what they should do. Having been a county budget analyst for some 16 years I have some slightly different realities about what a public (local government) budget is and is not.

    “Let’s begin by examining just what a public budget is and what makes it good or bad.
    A public budget encodes a community’s decisions about how to allocate scarce shared resources in order to meet its needs and to accomplish its goals.”

    This definition in my mind, while idealistically correct, and almost a pure definition of the perfect outcome, it is not what is practiced in reality. In reality, much of the budget, 70%, 80%, maybe more has had years, decades of time to build momentum and infrastructure to the point that those dollars and policies are rarely if ever discussed. Let me repeat that, 80% or more of most annual local government budgets are not seriously reviewed for allocation changes.

    Why is this? First, a budget is simply the top of an iceburg of many component parts. Each of those component parts exists in their own little world with smaller component parts. In fact I would go so far to say that a local government with its various programs, departments, political factions, state and federal overlords, and citizens, represents nothing less than a full ecosystem, something akin to a supra-organism. The complexity of such rendering most allocation decisions as complete shots in the dark as to how such allocations (budgets) will move even one program, much less the whole system.

    Second, such complexity forces, either consciously or subconsciously, the decision makers to latch on to single bits, single issues, single choices, or even a collection of single choices, in a world where a million different choices add up to a daily functioning of a local government. The best, most experienced local government administrators can’t grasp all the little decisions that each department makes daily, quarterly, annually, that add up to what a local government does, so how can we expect ever changing, non-expert democratic representatives to understand, weigh, and ultimately allocate resources around all those mini-decisions that make up the entire ecosystem. Citizens have even less understanding of the whole organism.

    With so many parts and so much complexity, how do profound, multivariate, community altering decisions get made? Well they don’t get made that way. There isn’t such overarching expertise and there most definitely isn’t sufficient data and models to predict how one or 10 or 5,000 allocation decisions will affect community level outcomes…therefore much of the machinery of government keeps on chugging along, because chaos has not yet ensued, and that is pretty dang good, allowing the allocation choosers to more comfortably piddle around the edges of the whole system. The edges are where ecosystem complexity trims down to single issues that are graspable by the players in the allocation game, raises for employees, a new diabetes program, filling up potholes, more money for schools, an expanded homeless shelter.

    In some ways an annual budget has never been a window into active community decisions as much as it is always a largely static representation of what has come before. Despite the soaring rhetoric of change that many budgets profess, the ecosystem complexity of local governments really rewards the momentum of what has come before over almost anything else.

    With all this in mind, what is it that a local government needs from its citizens concerning budget development? Honestly I’m not sure I have an answer. I think a clear understanding of the nearly infinite needs of various citizens and groups helps more than anything else.
    Figuring out where to allocate finite dollars to infinite issues in the best way that promotes the entire ecosystem of a community needs a level of data and modeling that is not yet in place (and could be decades in the making). Once administrative experts and politicians can begin to grasp the effects of individual allocation decisions on the whole ecosystem, then maybe citizen discussions about budget allocations can have a real and valuable effect.

    One last thing. I take some issue with the concept that:

    “A budget is legitimate if it is and is seen to be an accurate reflection of the values and priorities of the whole community.”

    With finite resources and diverse populations…the words “whole community” shouldn’t even be a part of budget language. It’s not possible to do anything that pleases or angers the “whole community”. Many parts of a community are silent, many parts of a community are in direct odds with other parts of the community. Legitimacy cannot be expected to come from such a lofty, yet unrealistic, and even unnatural goal. A vibrant ecosystem is one of constant turmoil and change. Some things winning, other things losing. A million individual inputs, sometimes fighting against each other, to produce a vibrant, changing, flexible system. A budget is legitimate if it is based in some comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem it supplies with energy (funding).

    • Eric Jackson


      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think you’ve done an excellent job of presenting the non-idealistic reality of what we’re talking about here. Getting anywhere near the kind of vision I tried to present is incredibly difficult, indeed probably impossible. Which is not to say that striving for the vision is not worthwhile – the only way we’ll get closer is by remembering what direction we’re trying to head :).

      I think your point about what’s most needed is important: to help citizens understand the enormous complexity involved. To me, that’s one of the top priorities for those of us trying to contribute to the solution.

      Re: your last criticism, the point I was trying to emphasize is that all stakeholders in the community need to be represented in the process. Obviously that doesn’t mean satisfying everyone – that’s clearly not possible. But often the way things are done turns out to exclude key groups, even when there is absolutely no intention to do so, and that’s something worth working to address.

    • Louis Buonpane

      Interesting take Keith, well stated.

      I would add the observation that, depending on the size of the jurisdiction, employee pay and benefits are often 50% or even much more than that of the annual budget. And forget about [adequately addressing] Other Post Employment Benefits, or OPEB . . .

      Not a lot of play there for reflecting values and priorities of a whole community – to your points – except maybe for the usual hackneyed calls for ‘more public safety’ resources.

      • Eric Jackson

        Lou, less a reply to your point than a further comment … one thing I’ve thought about in presenting a budget is to try to do a better job connecting the dots between the things citizens encounter day to day in their community and the people who make those things happen. That’s much less about numbers than about stories, but I think it is a vital part of helping people understand some of the realities of municipal and county budgets, like those you and Keith have pointed out here.

  4. Jim Van Fleet

    I’ve heard discussions of the finance departments frustrations when departments overspend their budget, and the finance department is forced to get inventive and gain cooperation with other departments to cover the shortfall. The process of opening a budget to do something as simple as publicize a commitment at a point in time creates an opportunity for them to properly assign blame, and increase their own agency in the whirligig of local government decision making.

    Up-front press coverage or citizen engagement may not even be needed to receive this benefit.

    • Eric Jackson

      Jim, good point. I find it fascinating how often open data initiatives that were intended primarily to serve the public turn out to be incredibly useful for those serving in the government itself.

  5. Ash Roughani

    A lot of what you’re talking about is what we’re trying to do with, a Code for Sacramento project that’s tracking key quality of life indicators. Later this year, we hope to link those up with the budget information we can extract from local government open data portals, long with GuideStar data to show the impact of nonprofit work. And we want to engage the community in setting goals for the future. I think that Josh Lerner and team are doing great things with the Participatory Budgeting Project: It’s all about using online tools to drive offline engagement.

  6. Eric Jackson

    The project looks awesome! Agree that it’s a nice example of what I’m talking about and, not only is it tying finances to outcomes, it’s also doing something that I think is critical: connecting to other sources of data and other stakeholders. I’ll definitely highlight in the next post.

    Agree re: participatory budgeting. In fact, they’re doing a project right now in Greensboro, NC – there was an earlier post about it on this blog: I am definitely planning to bring it up as one high-potential approach to achieving some of the goals I’ve talked about.

  7. Kathy Pettit, Urban Institute

    I really like the points about not open data generally not reaching out to other groups and being disconnected from the decision-making process.

    I also totally agree with the expected outcomes part, but it’s a very tall order. I’m guessing that information doesn’t even exist for many categories of spending.

    I think for strategy sake, I’d rather frame the definition that the open budgets (electronic format, with wide outreach, connected to process/community conversations) lay the groundwork to performance budgeting and comparing expected to actual outcomes. Maybe with the eventual goal to have it tied to the overall performance mgmt. system?

    • Eric Jackson

      Kathy, I think your framing makes sense. It’s undoubtedly the case that in many categories the outcomes information is lacking (or at least extremely hard to get at in a usable way) and it makes sense to me to use open budgets as combination groundwork and driver to start changing that. I think it probably also makes sense to pair with ideas like priority-based budgeting which provide a natural framework for following up on outcomes/performance. Like participatory budgeting, it may be possible to start applying the ideas in more limited areas of the budget and growing from there. And, yes, I suspect that tying into the overall performance management system would be critical to making the change effective.

  8. Erik Fabian

    I really appreciate the thoughtful conversation in this thread. There is so much chatter revolving around “open budgets”, “open data”, “civic data”, “priority based budgeting” and “participatory budgeting”, etc. that often times it is challenging to differentiate between these concepts and even more challenging to find synergies due to the confusion.

    In our opinion, all online public budget engagement represents a step in the right direction. That is, an attempt to provide the public more information and/or information in a more digestable form. While there can be a benefit here, the inherent dangers in simply regurgitating existing organizational fiscal data in a more visually pleasing way neither verifies that this data is actually “good data” nor provides the program level detail for citizens to understand the true cost of program and service delivery in their community.

    And these platforms clearly do not provide any opportunity for the public to engage and contribute to the results , priorities and fiscal resource allocation in their communities. Providing access and allowing citizens to engage at this level of input is what generates opportunities for organizations to make game-changing adjustments to service delivery for the benefit and long-term fiscal sustainability of the community.

    While we at the Center for Priority Based Budgeting (CPBB) don’t pretend to have all the answers, we have what we believe to be plenty of success stories in our partnership with over 100 local governments across North America. Two recent example includes:

    -City of Kalamazoo, Michigan – The City of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is implementing priority based budgeting while engaging with citizens in an effort to collaboratively define the future of the community. This program, Imagine Kalamazoo, is the city’s citizen engagement platform where citizens can weigh in and help define the future of Kalamazoo. Also see the city’s dedicated priority based budgeting page on their website.

    -City of Battle Creek, Michigan – Through priority based budgeting, staff is reviewing the entire city organization, identifying all programs, their costs, and their relevance through prioritizing each. Organizations that use priority based budgeting believe it increases the level of accountability and transparency and better communicates how resources are allocated through the budget process to achieve priorities of the community.

    “Understanding what our community thinks are our most important services is key to good governance,” Fleury said. “It is vital to the City Commission and this administration. Priority Based Budgeting helps us focus on these and align our resources to be the most efficient and effective in providing services. PBB is a transparent way to ensure, as public servants, we are being good stewards of the tax dollars with which we are entrusted.”

    See a recent Battle Creek press release and their city’s dedicated PBB page on their website.

    We have many other examples of successful local budget engagement that are available on our blog And while we again have clearly not perfected local budget engagement, we do believe our unique and innovative approach to match available resources with community priorities, provide information to elected officials that lead to better informed decisions, meaningfully engage citizens in the budgeting process and, finally, escape the traditional routine of basing “new” budgets on revisions to the “old” budget is truly having a transformative approach in local government budgeting for the benefit of citizens and their communities.

    • Eric Jackson

      Thanks, Erik. This seems to nicely round off the discussion on this post and offers another specific tool for improving the way we engage citizens around budgets.

  9. Eric Jackson

    Thanks everyone for the excellent discussion! I’m starting work shortly on the follow-up post – your comments will be invaluable in making that more meaningful.

  10. Love this review and critique, agree wholeheartedly with your assessment! And fun seeing so many familiar names engaging here!

  11. Brenda Morrison

    Hi Eric,
    Sorry to be late to the discussion. I think you and the others have made very good points –some of which have motivated us to develop our very first interactive budgeting site over 7 years ago. We recently upgraded and redesigned the platform, and would very much like yours (and the other contributors) feedback. We’ve used the tool in a variety of settings and often feel it works best when citizens work together in group settings to see and interact with the budget and it’s trade offs. Cities such as San Antonio, Hartford, and Kansas City have all used the tool differently. Yesterday, in partnership the Bi-Partisan Policy Center we released the federal budget which presented entirely different challenges than those we see on the municipal level.

    • Eric Jackson

      Hi, Brenda,

      Thanks for joining in! I am a big fan of Balancing Act and was actually playing with the federal budget version a couple days ago. It’s a great way to help people understand how challenging the trade-offs are and is a potentially very interesting way to get public input.

      As I’ve thought about the platform, I’ve been particularly drawn to the idea of connecting it to underlying models that reflect the consequences of increasing or decreasing funds in particular areas. This obviously has the potential to introduce significant complexity both for citizen users and for public officials trying to set up a site – avoiding that is obviously hard. Have you explored this much?

      Would love to have more conversation!

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