As information technology and new media continues to integrate itself into the fabric of our society, more and more examples of how you can use new media to engage citizens in the public decision making process continue to emerge. One of the more important ways that new media is being used is to shed light on the process of creating government budgets. With many state and local governments struggling to deal with huge budget shortfalls (and some even flirting with bankruptcy), the need couldn’t be greater.
Even in good economic times, the process of creating and adopting a government budget is not an easy process. With many American households having to tighten their belts to weather the economic downturn, taxpayers are reluctant to finance increases in public expenditures, and generally expect officials to demonstrate similar fiscal restraint. At the same time, residents often are unwilling to accept cuts in public services. To avoid displeasing voters, elected officials sometimes resort to irresponsible public borrowing and creative accounting — postponing the day of reckoning hopefully until after the next election cycle. The result in many states and cities has been disastrous, and has angered many citizens, as well as jeopardized the long term financial health of communities.
Of course, it’s easy for citizens to get angry about what passes for financial management in many governments. It’s another thing entirely for them to actually engage in the process in a meaningful way in hopes of creating better outcomes. Public sector budgets do not make for fun reading, and it’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around the large sums involved (take a crack at reading San Francisco’s latest budget). Yet, several new media tools offer examples of how one might inject some useful input from ordinary folks on public budgets — which traditionally have been the sole domain of lawmakers and plugged-in special interest groups.
The Los Angeles Times, as part of its coverage of California’s ongoing budget crisis, recently created an interactive state budget tool, and invited its readers to take a stab at solving the state’s budget deficit themselves. Visitors to the site choose from a menu of options for cutting public spending (perhaps deciding to lower benefit payments to disabled individuals or by closing the state’s community colleges) and increasing revenues (gasoline tax, anyone?). All the while, the tool’s deficit tracker keeps tabs on remaining size of the budget gap. As the site notes, closing the state’s deficit is definitely a challenge, but it can be done.
Minnesota Public Radio has been creating a similar tool for the last several Minnesota state budget cycles (the state adopts a two year budget on odd numbered years). MPR’s Budget Balancer lets visitors compare their final budget proposal to the official proposal from state’s governor, along with those of their fellow citizens. Visitors can also email their budget proposal to their elected officials automatically.
Another great example is Colorado’s Backseat Budgeter, sponsored by Colorado State University and created by public policy firm TAG Strategies as part of EngagedPublic.com. The site makes great use of colorful graphics to give visitors an easy understanding of the state’s spending and revenue sources. As visitors make their selections about taxes and spending, pop-up windows detailing state laws that mandate certain expenditures or limit collection of revenues emerge, highlighting the sometimes convoluted rules looming over budget decisions.
All these tools serve several purposes. First, they provide details about a government’s budget and finances in an easy to understand manner. Secondly, they give citizens a better sense of the trade-offs involved when it comes to public budgets. Finally, they provide government officials with information about public opinion regarding how public funds should be managed. While all these tools are focused on the state level, the same techniques could be applied to municipal budgets, which generally tend to be less complex.
Going beyond just soliciting input, Chicago’s 49th Ward is asking residents to create proposals and vote directly on how $1.3 million dollars of public funds are spent – mostly on local capital improvement projects. Following the model of participatory budgeting popularized in many of Brazil’s cities, the process is organized around a series of in-person community meetings, but proposals for improvement projects are accepted online. The Ward’s Alderman, Joe Moore, is hoping to make the process permanent, should residents be pleased with the results.
Participatory budgeting has its critics, of course, and is by no means a panacea for effective management of public funds. The process can end up giving an undue amount of say to certain groups if it is not managed well. And since people aren’t always rational in their own dealings, it’s not guaranteed that people will vote in the community’s long-term best interest any better than their elected representatives.
However, adding more public input into discussions about public budgets is something that does seem to offer opportunities for more sustainable budget decisions. And with these and future new media tools aimed at both helping people understand how taxpayer money is spent and providing constructive input on the budget process – there might be hope for the cash-strapped cities and states across the country to find a solution that citizens can live with.