The Turbo Tax approach to city budgeting

Hartford, Conn., used Engaged Public’s Balancing Act tool to visualize budget data and let citizens adjust numbers and priorities.

To encourage civic engagement, Hartford, Conn., puts the job of balancing the city budget into residents’ hands. Attendees of the People’s Budget, an annual two-day event that discusses and dissects budget proposals, encouraged citizens to break out their pencils and calculators and then start crunching the numbers.

But this year, writing utensils were optional. For its recent meeting, the city became the first customer to use Engaged Public’s Balancing Act tool. The online tool uses the city’s actual budget data, and lets users adjust numbers and budget priorities.

Hartford 2000, a coalition of community groups, the city government and the Hartford Public Library, hosts the budget events, where participants must balance a budget that has a projected deficit of $40 million to $50 million – a constant for the city, said Richard Frieder, community engagement director at the library. He learned about the tool last fall.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, this could really help our process,’ because instead of our small groups having to sit there with a calculator and pencil and paper figuring out all these numbers.…  They could input information, hit enter and have it come up in living color.” Frieder said.

“It did exactly what we hoped it would do in terms of really changing the process," he said. “People were able to spend a lot more time interacting with each other and with elected officials and focusing on the issue of the budget challenges rather than doing math and working with calculators.”

With the click of a few buttons, participants were able to cut the Public Works Department’s expenses by 2 percent or increase taxes to quickly see how those changes affected the bottom line.

Engaged Public, a Denver-based policy firm, is not a technology firm, but it partnered with CauseLabs, a Denver-based developer, to build Balancing Act. The tool is based on another platform, Backseat Budgeter, which helped educate elected officials in Colorado about the budget process. Balancing Act extends that interest out to the public in hopes of soliciting not only interest but solutions, said Chris Adams, president of Engaged Public.

“It’s got a Turbo Tax-like interface,” Adams said. It offers categories such as “police,” suggests subcategories -- patrol or investigation -- and then provides descriptions. If those categories and subcategories work for the city, officials can just fill in the budget amounts that correspond with it, he explained.

Cities can also customize the tool. Hartford oversees public schools, for example, so it included a category for those, he added.

Currently, the tool works best on desktops, but its responsive design means mobile device users can access it, too. Right now it supports municipal budgets, but in mid-July it will add county, school district and state budgets.

The tool is available at three levels – standard, pro and custom – and is priced according to level and number of residents. The most basic package for a municipality with less than 1,000 residents is $400 for setup and $99 per month or $891 per year.

Although Balancing Act uses open data, it differs from most open data projects in that the information fed to it is not automatically updated.

That’s because it’s intended to educate people about current conditions, like revenue and specific operating expenses, and then engage them in the budgeting process, Adams said. “Generally we’re budgeting for a future year so there’s nothing really to update.”

Governments’ use of Balancing Act is growing. Last week, San Antonio, Texas, released its budget on Balancing Act, and the state of Colorado also uses the tool.

Frieder said Hartford plans to use Balancing Act again for the 2016-17 budget cycle. “I think the more engaged the public is, in the long run, the easier is the job for the government,” he said.

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