Ask the average person on the street how much money their city spends on education or health care or police. Even the most well-informed probably won't be able to come up with a dollar amount. That's because even if you are interested, municipal budgets aren't presented in a way that makes sense to ordinary people.
Balancing Act is a web app that displays a straightforward pie chart of a city's budget, broken down into categories like pensions, parks & recreations, police, and education. But it doesn't just display the current budget breakdown. It invites users to tweak it, expressing their own priorities, all while keeping the city in the black. Do you want your libraries to be better funded? Fine—but you're going to have to raise property taxes to do it.
"Balancing Act provides a way for people to both understand what public entities are doing and then to weight that against the other possible things that government can do," says Chris Adams, president of Engaged Public, a Colorado-based consulting firm that develops technology for government and non-profits. "Especially in this era of information, all of us have a responsibility to spend a bit of time understanding how our government is spending money on our behalf."
Hartford, Connecticut is the first city in the country that is using Balancing Act. The city was facing a $49 million budget deficit this spring, and Mayor Pedro Segarra says he took input from citizens using Balancing Act. Meanwhile, in Engaged Public's home state, residents can input their income to generate an itemized tax receipt and then tweak the Colorado state budget as they see fit.
Engaged Public hopes that by making budgets more interactive and accessible, more people will take an interest in them.
"Budget information almost universally exists, but it's not in accessible formats—mostly they're in PDF files," says Adams. "So citizens are invited to pour through tens of thousands of pages of PDFs. But that really doesn't give you a high-level understanding of what's at stake in a reasonable amount of time."
If widely used, Balancing Act could be a useful tool for politicians to check the pulse of their constituents. For example, decreasing funding to parks draws a negative public reaction. But if enough people on Balancing Act experimented with the budget, saw the necessity of it, and submitted their recommendations, then an elected might be willing to make a decision that would otherwise seem politically risky.
Balancing Act's limitation is that it can't get into some of the minutiae of where exactly money should be raised or spent, like eliminating government inefficiencies or instituting a graduated property tax. But that's also its saving grace. If Balancing Act were more complicated, people wouldn't use it. The goal of a project like this is civic engagement, not developing robust public policy.
"Government is growing more aloof from residents and there is a growing distrust between people and government," says Adams. "We believe that one the best ways to rebuild that trust is to be transparent and accessible when it comes to one of the most important things a government does, which is to raise taxes and decide how to spend that money."