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Project of the Week: Austin’s Crowd-sourced City Budget

This past week, while I was in Texas, I learned that the City of Austin has launched an innovative online tool for the public to provide comment about their 2010-2011 Budget. Community members will be able to vote on priorities for unmet service demands and potential service reductions as the City works toward formulating its budget for next fiscal year. The public will also have the chance to add its suggestions to the list of options.

In his introductory message, City Manager Marc Ott says, “As I’ve stated many times in the past, I truly believe that a good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from…This new opportunity for the community to bring fresh ideas into the City’s budget process is something I am very excited about.”

I was able to catch up with a couple folks from the City to Austin to learn more about the project:

1. Give us some background – how did you get citizen feedback on the budget in the past?
In the past, we have received citizen feedback in a variety of ways. We’ve used the traditional public hearing before City Council and a survey to obtain input in the past, but last year, we added a highly interactive exercise at locations across the city where participants had to decide how they would close a $30 million budget shortfall. We used this both with the general public and a targeted youth audience. We believe last year represented Austin’s first ever citizen involved budget process, in which the general public could identify and quantify their budget priorities, with hundreds participating.


2. Tell me a bit about Austin’s decision to crowd-source its budget – how did the idea first come up and what were some of the things you did in the planning phase?

The idea stemmed in part from establishing a new position within our Public Information Office devoted exclusively to community engagement strategies. In that role, I’ve been researching and seeking to integrate numerous new channels for receiving input on many of our projects, with the idea that we have to consider how challenging it can be for people to attend a public meeting. In the planning phase, we discussed what questions we wanted to frame for the public in our current economic scenario, and we eventually determined that the best question was two-fold: what cuts would you be most willing to absorb, and what are your priorities for the budget moving forward? The Budget Office then solicited departments to develop options in both of those categories for us to put up on the web forum for feedback. We decided to allow for 25 votes per forum, forcing people to make some difficult choices with 30 or so options on each forum.

The forum allows for users/voters to add their own ideas to the discussion, and while the ideas may or may not be feasible to implement, we’ve chosen to let all ideas get posted (save any that are profane) and let decision-makers evaluate whether they are practical enough to include in the final budget. The user-generated ideas can receive votes and comments just like the City-generated ideas, which is different than our past engagement efforts, where lots of individual ideas came in without regard for how many in the community supported them. Our planning process included discussions with the City of Austin management team to persuade them of the added value of directly soliciting budget ideas from the public in a more robust way than we had in the past.


3. So you just launched this week – how did you announce it and how will you continue to let citizens know about this opportunity?

We distributed an announcement via the traditional media and social media, and we will continue to utilize social media to let citizens know about the opportunity across several platforms. We have also utilized some popular community listservs to disseminate the message. Going forward, I would anticipate that we would continue to distribute information via community organizations.

4. What’s been the result so far? Is it what you expected?
I’d say the forum has exceeded our expectations. In less than week, we’ve attracted more participants on the web than we did at all of our community forums last year combined. We’ve had lots of votes for existing ideas, new ideas presented, and lots of comments. We’ve also had good feedback on the site, including this comment: “This was an excellent method to engage those unable to attend public hearings and disinclined to public speaking. Thank you!” That’s exactly the audience we wanted to reach.


5. How are you measuring success? What will make it worth the time and effort?

I’d say we’ve already been successful, in that we’ve had such high participation. We aren’t tracking any demographic or personal information on the forum other than an email address someone uses to register, so in the future, we may want to pursue additional information about who participated in both our web forum, our public forum, and other community engagement initiatives. We’re not just looking for raw numbers of participants; we’re also looking for diversity of ages, backgrounds, geography, and the like.


6. How are you ensuring that it’s only Austin citizens who give feedback?

I don’t know that we have specific safeguards in place for that. We have safeguards in place to alert us to when people may be logging in repeatedly from the same computer with different email addresses to vote or comment multiple times, but we aren’t checking to see where people live or whether they’re citizens. In general, since we have such a large metropolitan area with so many communities surrounding us, we have lots of folks who live in other small communities but work in Austin and have a vested interest in the municipal budget.


7. Any other lessons learned or advice for other cities who may attempt to do the same?

I think it’s important to communicate clearly to the public the objective of the exercise, to ensure that it treats various departments and interests fairly (i.e., don’t let parks or libraries slip well below police), to police it to ensure conversation remains civil, and to provide access to people who don’t have Internet access at home or at work (i.e., libraries, rec centers, etc.). You also need a good team of folks in place to manage the process as you go, because it needs more than one person.

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Profile Photo Stephen Peteritas

This reminds me of a story I did in Mississippi where we put the budget items in a bracket and had people pick winners based on what they thought was more important. It was right around March Madness and the Budget bracket was definitely a hit and I really think it showed how a small sample of people valued certain items.

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