The People’s Budget is an interactive, mobile-friendly website that demystifies local spending by asking residents to play "mayor for a day" by balancing their city budget. Users learn more about how government works and how it spends money before deciding for themselves how to divide discretionary funds. The answers to these questions are synthesized and reported back to the community and city leaders to help get limited tax dollars to the programs that need them the most.
Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the City of New Orleans has changed drastically. Developers and city government have worked to rebuild and rethink not just our city’s infrastructure, but our priorities as a tourist destination, oil and gas hub, and most importantly, a home to return to for 384,000 diverse residents. New Orleanians have struggled to be a part of these decisions, and without a formalized citizen participation plan or a structure for input into our city budget, residents lack any real opportunity to have a voice in the way their city works.
The Committee for a Better New Orleans, a 51-year-old non-profit organization and civic engagement advocate has found a way to put a finger directly to the pulse of resident needs and priorities in the community with the People's Budget, an interactive site that lets everyone in New Orleans play “Mayor for a Day” by balancing the city budget. With an average play time of 10 minutes, the People's Budget makes it easy for everyone to participate in what was previously an opaque, complex process: spending tax dollars.
Though valuable as an input tool, the People's Budget also offers what has long been lacking in the discussion of city spending: financial education. In a city where 71% of residents have a subprime credit score and 13% of residents are unbanked, CBNO feels it is crucial to ensure our neighbors are given an equitable opportunity for financial literacy. Informed input is meaningful input; anything less is denying our neighbors a real seat at the table. Residents must balance the budget, choosing how to spend tax dollars based on previous year spending and personal priorities. Players are given the opportunity to learn more about how departments work and how they spend their money, as well as to give additional feedback on specifically how they’d like funds to be spent. What happens if you give a department less funding? What could they do with more?
The answers to these questions are synthesized and reported back to the community and our city leaders throughout the fiscal year. In the game’s initial year, residents in New Orleans pointed to a 35% increase in spending to improve city infrastructure, additional resources for mental health care, and smarter spending to reform our juvenile justice system.
In its first year, the People's Budget captured the voices of over 700 New Orleanians, 77% of whom had never participated in the city budget process before. For some of these new voices, the Spanish-language version of the People's Budget was their first time engaging in local politics on any level. Bringing fresh perspectives into the conversation about the way our communities work and where our tax dollars flow is ground-breaking in a Southern U.S. city with a history of deeply entrenched disenfranchisement, particularly in of communities of color.
In New Orleans, the lack of input into the budget was not just based on the lack of financial education of our residents. In many cities, it is an issue of the lack of political will. Balancing public budgets is not easy. Cities (or school boards, or national level budgets, or any public budget) are limited by tax code, but that does not stop the needs of residents from growing. Knowing how to balance this endless need with very finite tax dollars is not easy; for many elected officials, it is an exercise in frustration. We want to help those limited dollars go to the places where they’re needed the most.
The data created by the People's Budget is clean, usable, and novel. Never before have our city leaders had such a quantifiable look at the needs of residents across the city in a way that translates directly to the language of our city budget. Likewise, we’ve empowered our local community leaders and advocates by opening this data to everyone. By looking at the game’s quick poll questions or crowd-sourced budget report, now our neighbors can sit at the table with access to the same data as our elected officials.
The People's Budget was developed to meet a need in the New Orleans community, but has created a solution that can be used worldwide. Since its launch, CBNO has partnered with two U.S. cities and hopes to scale into two countries in Latin America in 2019. Scaling the site creates an exciting opportunity to learn about the priorities of communities around the world and to improve the way local governments respond to the needs of their residents. Meaningful resident input and genuine government response are crucial to the recovery of New Orleans, but they are every bit as necessary and in every way as powerful to all of the cities of the world.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
It was obvious that we needed to find a new way to talk about complex financial processes with a distrustful, disenfranchised community. With an average play time of 10 minutes, the People's Budget avoids spreadsheets and professional financial language to cut to the chase: here's how much money our city has, now what shall we do with it?
The key to sharing this information is finding a common language. While New Orleanians have more city data available to them than ever before, much of it is raw and difficult to navigate. One of the biggest successes of the site is speaking a readable, plain English (or Spanish) that doesn't require a degree in accounting to understand. Linking real dollars and city departments to the things New Orleanians see and feel in their communities every day makes wonky civic budgeting real: potholes get filled, parks get programming, parks get programming, and our streets get safer.
Collaborations & Partnerships
CBNO partnered with local web design firm Legnd to develop the technology for the People's Budget. A community council of beta testers helped us identify and work through design and content flaws to create the best possible experience for users. We work with a local collaboration of policy advocates to draft poll questions each year to create the most timely, useful data.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
CBNO has partnered with thirty-six local neighborhood organizations, non-profit organizations, and community centers throughout the city to ensure equitable participation. In 2018 we launched a partnership with the New Orleans City Council and hosted events in four of the five district councils with elected officials.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
In the three years since the People's Budget's launch, over 2,000 residents in New Orleans have participated, spending over $1.2 billion in virtual dollars. Our reports have generated changes in the actual city budget: most notably a 2017 allocation for more infrastructure repair and a 2018 allocation for better mental health services for youth.
We measure our success by the number and diversity of users each year. A demographic survey helps us understand which user groups (age, race, education or socioeconomic status) are not participating so that we can better outreach to achieve a representative set of residents. For example, we learned in 2015 that our smallest user group were seniors over the age of 69. In 2016 we partnered with senior centers to grow our senior users by 30%.
On average over the past three years, 75% of our users have never participated in the budget process before, meaning we are hearing from fresh resident voices that would have otherwise been silent.
Challenges and Failures
We have encountered two main challenges since deploying the People's Budget three years ago. Equitable representation of traditionally underserved minority groups has been difficult. Specifically, because of US President Trump's immigration policy over the past two years, engaging Latinx community members is almost impossible as many fear repercussions for gathering in public or political action. We have tried to address this issue by partnering with trusted Latinx community partners to forward our site, reaching people from the safety of their homes. Secondly, we have struggled to scale to other cities in the United States as much as we would like. We have begun working with other civic technology groups to better understand how to communicate the success of our program to other elected officials.
Conditions for Success
It is our hope that the city of New Orleans will institutionalize participation in the budget process by making the People's Budget a codified piece of our local government. We are currently working with the mayoral administration to form a more equitable budget participation policy to allow for this adoption. On a larger scale, it would help us to scale to other cities if there were a mandate that cities, school boards, or other governing bodies need to proactively request input into their budgets before passage. Funding for this kind of advocacy would be immensely helpful to organizations like ours.
To date, we have scaled the People's Budget to two other US cities: Cambridge, MA and Nacogdoches, TX. The two cities are very different: Cambridge is a large, liberal East Coast city with a formal participatory budgeting process and rich history of civic engagement, while Nacogdoches is a small city of just under 33,000 in Eastern Texas. For both cities, the ability to provide the game in an unlimited number of languages to encourage participation by minority and immigrant groups was key. In Cambridge, which has not formally launched yet, they hope to translate into the five languages featured on their traditional participatory budgeting ballots. Following the Open Government Partnership Summit for the Americas in Buenos Aires in 2017, we have formed relationships with civic engagement groups in Mexico and Argentina and hope to expand there in 2019.
First: understand the real problems facing your community before attempting to solve them. Standard community organizing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina often focused on rebuilding homes, parks, and churches-- activities that encouraged hands-on participation in dearly needed ways, but did not solve systemic problems that New Orleanians were desperate to solve in their government. Likewise, the budget that is passed each year does not necessarily line up with the crowd-sourced budget created by residents in the People's Budget. Our community council of beta testers were also crucial. They taught us things like the need for a department tracker at the bottom of the page, identified glitches, and pointed out wonky policy-type words that didn't translate to lay-people. Listening to your community on the front end will always yield a better product on the back end.
Second: The data you create is only as good as the number and the diversity of the people who participate in it. Engaging seniors, working families and illiterate members of our society is hard work. It takes many volunteer hours and coordination, but it is worth it. For many of the seniors that we play the People's Budget with, it is the first time--sometimes in 90 years-- anyone has ever asked them what they need. Equitable work is worth your time and your investment.
31 January 2015