In my last post I proposed a vision for open budgets and identified some of the gaps between that vision and the situation today. With the goal of increasing the legitimacy and effectiveness of public spending, I defined an open budget as one that is created through a process that ensures that it reflects the values and priorities of the whole community and designed to make a clear connection between allocated resources and expected outcomes. The post sparked a lively discussion in the comments that ranged from the serious obstacles communities face to some awesome tools and approaches.
In this post I want to reflect on how communities can make practical progress toward this vision. Rather than focus on specific tools or approaches, I will outline four guiding principles that I believe are critical to real progress. My hope is that they will spark further discussion about the best way forward.
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 CommunityBudgets.org 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.