Los Angeles Budget Challenge: When Surveys Won’t Take No For An Answer

Cross-posted from the Intellitics blog (includes screenshot gallery): Los Angeles Budget Challenge: When Surveys Won’t Take No For An Answer

Via Twitter today, I came across a new online consultation by the City of Los Angeles: Los Angeles Budget Challenge

How will you balance the City’s budget?

The Mayor of the City of Los Angeles is given the responsibility by the City Charter to develop a budget plan that must be presented for City Council consideration by April 20th of each year.

This year, the City of Los Angles will be challenged by many issues, including declining revenues, increased service demands, and soaring City pension contributions.

As we begin the planning process for Fiscal Year 2010-11, I invite you to help me develop my proposed budget by participating in the Los Angeles Budget Challenge where you will be asked to make some of the tough choices necessary to balance the City’s budget.

The site does not require registration, but participants are asked to identify their age group and zip code. Following a brief overview of the current budget situation and some instructions, the site leads into a total of twelve survey items, a selection of key issues and related policy proposals. Each item provides participants with a bit of basic background information. Participants can then choose between two to four pre-defined options, each of which with more or less of a deficit-reducing impact on the budget.

According to the site, the city is facing a $400 million budget deficit in FY 2010/2011. The eight survey items under spending offer participants up to $293 million in budget cuts and savings. The four items under revenue offer up to $280 million in additional revenue.

(see the original blog post for screenshots)

From a participation perspective, there are always a lot of questions one could ask for further analysis: How were the issues and policy proposals chosen that made it onto the survey? What will happen to the input? How binding is it? How does this fit into the overall budgeting process? Etc.

However, I just wanted to point out one easily overlooked detail that struck me as odd. Turns out there is one item among the twelve that won’t take “no” for an answer (the last one, which also happens to be the biggest, relatively): Public Private Partnerships for Parking Structures/Meters

(see the original blog post for a screenshot)

If you do the math, it is impossible to balance the budget unless a participant chooses option 2 (”Yes. The City should pursue a P3 agreement for City parking structures only.”) or option 3 (”Yes. The City should pursue a P3 agreement for CIty parking structures and City parking meters.”).

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

It’s not apparent if this site uses an off-the-shelf tool. I’ve added it to ParticipateDB, nonetheless.

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I like the concept. I checked it out. Only issue I would put is that there was a significant barrier to entry. Seemed a little complicated and overwhelming. But great concept.

Tim Bonnemann

In general, I agree. Getting citizen input to inform the budget process is a good thing.

However, I’m not so sure about the degree to which the survey pre-determines the outcome for item #12 (raising revenues via public private partnerships for city parking). At the very least, the fact that “no” really isn’t an option could have been made much more transparent (e.g. by not offering the option “no” in the first place).

As with many of these initiatives, this leads to the greater question: is this a genuine attempt at public participation following sound principles (e.g. here, here), or is it merely PR?