A lot of the Online Public Engagement Emporium platforms provide some form of budget simulation tool, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. And while there’s a lot of very welcome attention being paid to how to better inform people about budget impacts of their ideas, it’s hard sometimes for the professional who is hip-deep in budget minutiae to figure out a strategy that will build real public engagement – and get political support.
Along those lines, I thought this post from Matt Crozier of Bang the Table laid our some important priorities — and broader principles that apply to not just budget simulations, but all kinds of public engagement. Smart folks.
We’ve been helping organisations with online participatory budgeting using our Budget Allocator tool for about 5 years now. Ever since Waverley Council, in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, approached us to build something that would help demonstrate to their community the difficult budgetary choices they were facing.
In that time I’ve seen Budget Allocator used as a genuine resource allocation tool, as an educational tool and even as a workplace exercise to help Councillors decide on budgetary priorities. Here are a number of tips and answers to questions we are often asked about online participatory budgeting, I thought they might be of use to others.
1. Leave the detailed accounts in the ledger – use something simpler for your community process
This is not an invitation to fudge the numbers or to be dishonest with the community but you need to think about what outcomes you are after.
Firstly, it’s most likely that you want the community to be able to participate and not to be put off by mountains of detail. Secondly, you are probably interested in the choices of the community between one expenditure and another, these choices can be made without the exact cost being presented and without the nuances of discounting, depreciation and tax treatments being applied. An approximate cost is quite adequate.
So when you go to your Accounts Department for the cost of your different budget priorities and they tell you that it isn’t that simple don’t stress. Ask for a rounded up all inclusive approximation of the cost and then ensure that your participatory budgeting website carries a disclaimer along the lines of “Costs used in this exercise are broadly indicative and are for comparative purposes only”. Now you are being honest and you are also making it easy for more people to get involved.
2. Only ask about the elements you are considering for change
We had an organisation use our Budget Allocator some years ago, I won’t name them, and they populated the Budget Allocator with just about every item from their budget. It was ridiculously long and a lengthy exercise for the community to go through. You could select every budget item but one or two without going over budget. As a result the completion rate was low and the result not especially useful.
The truth was that the real choice facing the community was between about half a dozen large expenditure items. Had the process focused just on those items, the community would have been much better informed about their choices. And the results would have been much better for everyone.
Again, set the picture for the community: “This exercise includes only the areas where significant expenditure changes are under consideration for this year’s budget. For a comprehensive budget summary go to…..”
Similarly you might want to see how the community view spending on certain areas but know that your organisation will only entertain changes to those budgets of a certain amount. That’s ok, offer the status quo along with realistic levels of budgetary change. There is no need to offer to allow budget to be slashed unrealistically.
This is an honest approach and also avoids wasting the community’s time thinking about things which are in reality already determined.
3. Provide consequences that are real community and personal outcomes
It may sound obvious but giving the consequence of reducing the libraries budget by 20% as “20% reduction in library budget” is not especially meaningful for the community – and yes I have seen this too many times to allow it to be funny. Saying instead that “this will result in libraries closing for weekends” or “this may result in the closure of the Pickwick branch library and the mobile library service” is much more real.
If you are asking people to participate in setting a budget and you want this information to be meaningful, those people have to understand the consequences of their choices.
In Budget Allocator we provide an information box adjacent to each choice that can be populated with text and photos depicting the consequences of a choice. Photos are especially useful if you are discussing asset condition.
If your organisation could potentially choose to exceed the budget then also provide a personal outcome for the participant’s cumulative budget choices – “you have exceeded the budget and this will result in a rate increase of $2 per week”.
Shellharbour City Council in Australia did this really well in their Budget Allocator. To see the consequences of each choice click on the ‘i’ symbol next to each item in their Budget Allocator.
4. Link your participatory budgeting exercise to a discussion space
Online participatory budgeting is a great way to educate your community about the tough choices being faced by your organisation and also to learn about community preferences.
When people go through these processes they often want to talk about the ideas that they have or about their passions about certain aspects. Running a parallel discussion forum provides for a deeper and more nuanced analysis of community views and can provide great insights into the results you are getting. This can also build your online community for future discussions.
5. Use Online Participatory Budgeting as part of your face to face engagement process
A simple budget allocation tool can be both fun to complete and thought provoking. Use it as part of your face to face engagement process. Perhaps have people complete a simple budget exercise on a tablet in the local shopping mall and use that as a conversation starter. Or have participants use the tool at the start and end of a face to face engagement event in order to measure the extent to which the information presented to them has changed their views.
Below is a flyer from from Shellharbour Council inviting their community to face to face sessions to go over the budget together using the Budget Allocator tool.