In about 10 minutes, anyone in New Orleans can try remaking the city's budget. A new website, the Big Easy Budget Game, leads citizens through how their city is currently spending money, and then asks people playing the game how they'd do it differently.
Various cities have been attempting participatory budgeting for about 25 years—New York, for example, lets residents go to district meetings and vote on how tax dollars should be spent. But the process is usually something that happens in person, and it can be hard to get people to show up. It also can be hard for someone who shows up at a meeting to understand the complexity of a city budget as a whole.
The new game doesn't offer citizens a direct vote on the budget; it's run by a nonprofit organization, and not the city. But it may be an easier—and funner—way for people to start to understand how a city budget works. The organization also plans to publish the aggregated wishes of everyone who plays, so the city can better understand what citizens prioritize.
The Committee for a Better New Orleans, the nonprofit organization that created the game, has been trying to get citizens more involved in the city budget for a long time. But they struggled to get people engaged at in-person meetings. The city has also held town hall meetings on the budget, but the experience has been frustrating for many, and attendance has dropped.
"Making sure that there's a place that we're starting that's accessible for everyone in the room is incredibly difficult," says Kelsey Foster, project coordination at the organization. "Most families here don't create household budgets. So then to ask them to try to engage in a city budget that's 800 pages long is just kind of overwhelming and tends to just turn people off."
People in New Orleans also tend to be skeptical of city government, and the organization wanted to offer a transparent, objective picture of the current budget.
"We have a long and very legitimate history of distrust between residents and politicians here in New Orleans," she says. "Politicians haven't always been honest, money has gone missing, and for generations people here just don't have a level of trust between themselves and the government. And so as a third party we wanted to create something that was very accessible, quick, visual, and could really engage people in a way that might get them to think about the budget in a different way."
As people go through the game, they can see how money has been spent in the past, and what minimum budgets are for various programs, from the parks department to sanitation. Then they can start to move money around based on what they personally care about. It's designed to be easy enough to play that a 10th grader can use the site.
One of the lessons: Even if you have $237 million to spend, it's hard to make it go around. "People talked a lot about just how difficult it is to balance a budget," says Foster. "That's certainly a huge goal of the site—just to help folks understand that we do need to hold the city accountable, but accountability is a two-way street. If we're going to hold our city leaders accountable, we also need to be giving them the best data we have about our priorities."
The game will be open for residents to play until the official city budget is released in the fall. The organization hopes to share results with the city as the game is played, and then will publish the overall data from the game next to the actual budget.
Because many people in New Orleans don't have own computers, the team plans to host in-person events with laptops and tablets and to promote the game at places such as libraries. They also plan to translate the contents into Vietnamese and Spanish, the two mostly commonly spoken languages after English. "This game is only as good as the diversity and number of people who play it," Foster says.
They're hoping that other cities build games of their own, and they want to help them do that. "We created it to be replicable, in hopes that we can partner with other cities to help them use this kind of data-driven approach to public spending," she says.
Cover Photo: Flickr user vxla