Clarity in government is essential for the participation of the people. In few places is that clarity as important as a town or city budget.
The town budget has a great impact on people's daily lives. But many budgets presented to citizens, especially in smaller towns, are difficult to read. The documents are full of abbreviations and tightly-packed figures that may capture the spirit and the most essential information on the budget process, but it’s meaningless to most citizens.
A budget summary or narrative can be helpful. The issue with one of these attached to a budget that citizens can't read is that they don't know exactly how trustworthy or inclusive the information is; they can't verify it on their own. This is a tall hurdle that makes it hard for constituents to feel empowered.
The role of government is the authoritative allocation of scarce resources. Towns' budget officers are working to stay under the 2 percent tax cap, and for some towns this can mean a few thousand dollars up or down. With that little wiggle room, informed feedback from constituents is more valuable than usual this budget year.
The role of citizens is to hold their representatives accountable. If the citizens can't account for the money their government is spending, they're missing out on participating in the most important function of their governing body.
The problem with many of these publicly distributed documents is their extreme brevity. There's a lot of information to put in there, but handing out small books for public review is awfully inefficient. Paper's not what it used to be in this 21st century.
Space was a consideration in those bygone days before data bits flew through cables and airwaves, bringing us funny cats and free news articles. Now, all that bandwidth required for Mittens' latest mishap can easily accommodate a bigger document packed with easier-to-digest line items.
A modern revolution in information design provides many solutions to that problem.
Cook County, Ill. made a visualization tool called “Look at Cook” available online for its citizens. The tool features an interactive line graph showing year-to-year spending, with line items that can be drilled down through until users see exactly where their town’s money is spent. The program is an open source, meaning it’s free to use, though it does require some amount of technical expertise.
In Portsmouth, N.H., a city council candidate named Jack Thorsen has posted a tool that shows the municipal budget in a pie chart. That by itself is nothing impressive, but as soon as the user hovers their mouse cursor over the graphic it comes alive, spinning and expanding.
When a slice of the chart is clicked, say “Library,” a list opens to the right of the chart, documenting how the library funds are spent exactly, from overtime to postage to book-binding. Thorsen is developing his visualization tool as a business venture.
At a time when citizens and budget officers are calling for more creativity in allocating those scarce resources, a little creativity in presenting the budget can make community input a lot more valuable.
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