POSTED ON JUNE 26, 2013:
Gaming the Budget
Tech tools elsewhere increase citizen participation
About 75 people showed up at the downtown Tulsa library to participate in the National Day of Civic Hacking.
The efforts that day included a focus on developing TulsaWiki.org, a website devoted to explaining all things Tulsa.
It's just one of many projects contemplated by a core group of volunteer computer programmers known as Code for Tulsa. They've already done several demonstration projects, including one related to firefighter dispatch data. Other city government-related projects seem sure to follow.
Elsewhere, another trend has emerged: new visualizations and online tools designed to boost citizen understanding of government finance.
Could the local Code for Tulsa group become involved in such an effort with the city's budget?
"We haven't done anything on it yet, but it's possible, and depending on if enough people were interested in it, it could happen," said Luke Crouch, a member of the group.
It won't happen in time for the latest budget. The Tulsa City Council earlier this month approved an approximately $711 million budget for the 12-month period beginning July 1.
Mayoral candidate (and former mayor) Kathy Taylor has brought up the issue of making the budget a bit more citizen-friendly.
"Just posting proposed budget numbers is not what it takes for citizens like you to know where your hard-earned tax dollars are going," Taylor's campaign website states. "We must show citizens exactly where the City is spending their money and how it is being managed."
The website states that Tulsa should be more like Austin, Tex., "which publishes contracts, vendor lists, weekly information about how much money the City has spent, business opportunities, routine reports on how much business is going to small, minority- and women-owned businesses, and much more."
But how many citizens take the time to pore over such documents?
At the University of Oklahoma, Aimee Franklin, director of programs in public administration in the political science department, studies citizen engagement with government budget processes.
Various cities take different approaches to making their budgets accessible. Some cities form citizen budget advisory committees; others, she said, publish simplified budgets designed for citizens.
"Instead of a 500-page document filled with numbers and eight-point font," such simplified budget documents "mostly have graphs and bullet-point style narratives," Franklin said.
Technology also plays an increasing role in how financial information is presented to citizens of some cities, large and small.
A township in New Jersey, South Orange Village, partnered with a Silicon Valley startup, Delphi Solutions, to announce in April a sophisticated online program highlighting that community's approximately $32 million budget.
On a black background, a color-coded stacked line graph shows at a glance the budget for the last five years. It's clear to see trends in overall spending, as well as money devoted to infrastructure or salaries and wages.
With a single click, citizens can focus on an area of interest, such as police force overtime, for example, and see the spending trend for that category.
In California, non-profit Next 10 is a leader in the movement to have technology bring citizens into budget discussions.
Founded 10 years ago, the organization first began working with state budget information to create "an interactive online game," said F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10.
The game allows citizens to make choices on spending and revenue to create their own budgets. Next 10 also does work relating to other policy areas, and also works with cities to present budget information in a different way.
"We've licensed it to Oakland and San Francisco and Los Angeles, a number of other municipalities. What they do is they take their budget content and put it into our framework," Perry said.
The 2013 Los Angeles Budget Challenge, for example, allows citizens to click on, say, animal services. Then, they can choose to maintain the status quo, cut funding or increase spending. By clicking next, participants are given a similar three choices involving the city attorney's office.
And so it continues. For this particular "online game," specific dollar amounts are already listed as choices, but, if the exercise is completed, the result is a sample budget -- and having made some tough choices similar to those made by elected officials. The finished budget also shows the most popular choices made by others who completed the "challenge."
Perry said the group frequently presents its statewide budget game to schools and community groups, an effort to promote conversation and understanding about government finance.
"Then at the end ... there's actually a budget that, as a group, the group has created," Perry said. "That's pretty cool, because then you can actually have conversations about it."
Perry said his group doesn't share the results of such games with government, but Franklin noted that one reason governments may choose such a format for displaying their budget in an interactive way is to listen to the desires of citizens.
Franklin at OU said she considered having her students put together a budget project to be used by various cities in Oklahoma -- she said she didn't know of any that had a similar online interface for residents -- but soon ran into a hurdle.
"We right away ran into the proprietary wall," Franklin said.
Even though Next 10 is a nonprofit, they receive payment for licenses to use their program. Delphi Solutions operates at OpenGov.com, where it touts its services to any city willing to pay: "Pricing for Annual Transparency for a yearly subscription depends on population size and data complexity," the company's website states. "The yearly cost is often less than printing the Budget Book." Other companies exist offering similar services.
Crouch said he's familiar with those efforts. But paying those groups may run a bit counter to the goals of his group.
"One of the major reasons we want to do this is to save the city money, but also to leverage resources that are inside of the community," Crouch said.
The city recently passed a formal resolution committing to the idea of open data, an effort championed by Councilor G.T. Bynum. It may be the first step in establishing partnerships between local, citizen programmers and city government.
"One of the things the resolution did was to establish a committee that will basically look into this stuff," Crouch said, with members on it from the city's information technology staff along with citizen developers. "We'll kind of look into all these things."
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