Providing citizen access to public data is a popular trend among city governments, with NYC recently announcing that every check in their register will now be accessible to the public, but do existing efforts at transparent government spending actually engage citizens and give them a better understanding of their communities? The short answer is not really. The long answer is:
There are two main types of open budgeting tools; transparency tools that are focused on displaying data and participation tools that allow citizens to vote on budgeting initiatives. There are also two subtypes called “budget in a box,” which means that they are third party standardized solutions that cities usually subscribe to for a fee, and custom applications that are specifically built for a city.
Transparency apps mostly miss the mark in terms of civic engagement and overall usefulness. Transparency apps are about sharing data, making it open and accessible to citizens but do little to provide any relevant indicators to contextualize the data. For example budget in a box application Budget Vision displays beautiful Mint-like charts showing that the Watertown, MA School Department spends $34.14 million every year but fails to give the slightest indication of whether that amount is sufficient to fund the school system.
Citizen Budget gives citizens a chance to view government spending from the perspective of a decision-maker and decide the budget for themselves. Users can manipulate slider tools to raise or lower the funding for particular initiatives, such as “snow removal brigade” or opening “libraries on holidays.” Citizens can view the financial repercussions of their decisions in a box that shows if they are over or under budget. The great thing about this app is that is gives citizens a chance to vote on individual initiatives while making them aware of the financial costs. The problem with these kinds of participation apps is that the city has to first decide to allow citizens to vote on initiatives, which severely limits the amount of participating cities, and even if citizens are allowed to vote the city frames the decisions by choosing what they can vote on and the financial data they are given. Apps like Citizen budget are great as teaching tools to get citizens into the mindset of decision-makers but they fail to give citizens a full picture of their communities’ financial health and a significant way to affect that health.
Let’s go through a thought exercise to see how these tools relate to citizens. If a concerned mother wants to learn about the financial health of her kid’s favorite local library, transparency tools like Budget Vision and Look at Cook could tell her the total cost of the city’s spending on books or libraries but that data is not going to help her determine if her particular library is well funded. A participatory tool like Citizen Budget could enable her to electronically vote on initiatives that may be related to her library, but only if the city decides to allow citizens to vote on budgets impacting her area. Participatory tools can only be used after the city has already decided to allow citizens to participate, if her library’s budget is not open to citizen voting then she will be out of luck here as well.
Buzzwords like open, sharing, and transparency sound wonderful but giving people raw data without a frame of reference does little to expand understanding for either citizens or decision-makers. The adoption of transparency and participation tools signify that governments want to give citizens a better understanding of their communities but current tools are simply not suited to that task.
Another element that existing tools miss is that open budgeting is an opportunity for communities’ to capitalize on the collective intelligence of millions of citizens monitoring, reporting, and analyzing the needs of their community and the government services it is receiving. Citizens are not just consumers of government services, they are also an untapped resource for making those services more efficient and impactful.
The question here is why do we want people to have access to budgeting/spending information and what do we want them to do with it?
-monitor spending and the success of programs to provide a check against waste, corruption, and failure.
-monitor the state of public services and properties to determine if they need more/less funding.
-suggest new spending programs to improve the community and monitor their success.
The bottom line is for any of these open data measures to be meaningful, they have to engage citizens to continuously use them. Accessibility is not nearly enough, long term monitoring needs engagement. Engagement means inspiring users to continuously check on the data, so they stay vigilant. Having watchmen is not worthwhile if they only show up a few times, so how do we engage citizens for long-term participation?