"Citizen Budget" is an innovative online tool to improve public budget consultations. The customizable budget simulator is at the cutting edge of online engagement and educates residents about government services, budget tradeoffs and limits to government spending.
Problems and Purpose
"Citizen Budget" is an innovative online tool to improve public budget consultations. The customizable budget simulator is at the cutting edge of online engagement and educates residents about government services, budget tradeoffs and limits to government spending in a fun, user-friendly and and dynamic way. It can also significantly increase the number of residents engaging in the budget process, providing budget organizers with a wealth of information.
Traditionally, governments, schools and other bodies have held public meetings to solicit feedback on their budgets. However, these public meetings have significant limitations: they are costly, attendance is limited or dominated by a few people/groups and there are time restrictions on each person's participation. Citizen Budget moves the process online which can increase citizen engagement by lowering the time needed to participate. The tool is also unique for its simulation exercise which gives users an appreciation for the difficult trade-offs associated with city budgeting.
Origins and Development
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How it Works
As Citizen Budget is only a tool to facilitate the implementation of participatory budgeting, the recruitment and selection of participants varies from case to case. In Montreal, for example, social media was used to attract visitors to the site.
Citizen Budget simulator puts residents in the shoes of public administrators as they manipulate real numbers of the city budget and see the impacts to services and their taxes immediately. Through this 10 minute exercise, residents deepen their appreciation on how municipal services are delivered and learn about the important tradeoffs made by city leaders. The city receives the residents' submissions in aggregate, in a personalized dashboard with data available in an easy-to-use Excel download.There are currently 3 versions of Citizen Budget :
- The tax version (where residents vote on how their tax dollars are spent)
- A capital project consultation such as recreation or aquatics center, new park, library, etc.
- The 'balance-the-budget' version which can be seen on our website demo at http://demo.citizenbudget.com/
Citizen Budget comes fully hosted and maintained, offering organizers their own private dashboard, choice of domain name, and a dedicated page for each person's submission integrated with social media and email to encourage friends and family to participate as well.
As the tool is customizeable, its use and the kinds of public interaction it promotes varies depending on the municipality. For example:
Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal
The borough of Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal used Citizen Budget to consult its residents on its 2012 budget. Of its 100,000 residents, over 6,000 visited the website and 600 submitted full budgets with comments. The online consultation reached more residents than a previous, traditional consultation at 10% of the costs.
City of Newmarket
The City of Newmarket launched a Citizen Budget consultation in the summer of 2012 which included a new feature allowing residents to see the impact of their changes on their taxes. By altering city services, the citizens of Newmarket were able to see in real-time, how their property taxes would be affected based on their property's value.
Township of Langley
The Township of Langley launched a Citizen Budget consultation in early 2013 which took advantage of the platform's customizability by matching the user interface to their brand identity. The consultation asked residents to indicate their preferences on a series of budget questions and also answer traditional "top of mind" survey questions.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
No outside analysis of the method has been conducted. All outcomes and conclusions contained in this section have been reported by Citizen Budget's developer, Open North Inc.
In the case of Plateau Mont-Royal, the use of Citizen Budget helped the online consultation reach more residents than a previous, traditional consultation at 10% of the costs. Out of 100,000 residents, 4,500 visited the consultation website; 732 residents submitted balanced budgets; and over 25% of traffic generated from social media.
Richard Ryan, a Plateau Mont-Royal councillor, put it aptly, "For me, this type of online consultation is a public education tool that allows citizens to take their place within government... Both citizens and elected officials appreciated the outreach and educational aspects of the web application, to better understand the budget and the difficulties in making decisions to achieve a balanced budget.” With respect to the traditional, offline participatory budgeting process conducted by a previous administration, “It is no longer a question of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over 3 years in order for a small select group to vote on how to spend 1 or 2 million dollars."
Similar positive outcomes can be seen in Newmarket. Of 80,000 residents, the consultation received over 1,200 visitors and 287 budgets were submitted by residents. Cindy Wacket, Corporate Project Consultant of Strategic Initiatives for the Town of Newmarket stated that "2012 was Newmarket’s first year employing an on-line budget tool as part of the overall communications plan to engage the community in the annual budget process. The evolution of our survey into an electronic format provided our Council with insight into service levels and tax spending choices, and helped to inform Council when making budget decisions. The on-line tool helped us to increase our response rate, tripling it from the previous year’s budget, and the open-ended feedback was invaluable for planning projects and priorities for the year ahead."
In Langley, participants 55 and over chose lower budgets for annual traffic calming than those 25-54 and 75.5% of residents suggested a change to the Conservation Education program. Deputy Director of Finance for the Township, Karen Sinclair, said that "I was very impressed with Open North’s responsiveness to our questions the first time through the process. [Open North] showed great initiative in recommending effective wording that helped us put our best foot forward with our community. I look forward to next year and creating a more robust list of survey questions to engage the community more fully. Great value for the amount paid!"
This entry was originally published as a case by Open North Inc. and has been edited and re-classified as a method to meet Participedia standards.