It can be hard to understand a city’s budget. It could be thousands of pages long. It may refer to things so vaguely that you can’t figure them out without a Rosetta Stone. But if you want to understand what your city is actually doing, whether it is prioritizing water purchasing or cutting costs in park maintenance, you have to start with the budget. It’s a key to citizen engagement.
So San Antonio put their budget online so all their citizens could understand and get involved in the difficult decisions. Both before and after the decisions are made. It’s available in Spanish and in English to make it completely accessible. Also, it’s really fun.
San Antonio used Balancing Act, an online budget simulator used by local governments across the country “to make their budget processes more transparent, educational, interactive, and ultimately engaging for residents.” Basically – they turned balancing their budget and their city’s priorities into something anyone can understand and participate in.
You can change the amount of money each department gets, and you can use the icons to get more information about each section of the budget. But, you have to end up with a balanced budget. So if you want to spend more money on something, you have to either raise the taxes or reduce the budget for something else. Practicing the trade-offs helps citizens participating make more strategic decisions.
Then, San Antonio invited the public to participate before decisions were made about their 2016 budget. At public meetings with opportunities for questions and to use the simulation, city officials learned that citizens prioritized streets/sidewalk maintenance, social and senior services, and parks and recreation. So San Antonio officials paid attention ad adopted a budget that increased street maintenance and sidewalk safety funds, while reducing property taxes, and added budget amendments for social and senior services.
In short, San Antonio wanted their citizens to ImagineGov with them. So they made it easy (and fun) and took the time to really listen when creating their city budget. And, because the citizens actually did get involved, their voices were heard and city priorities changed. Now that’s an ImagineGov success story.
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