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Polco News & Knowledge

The Perfect Complement to Your Budget Survey

- Guest Article By Chris Adams – Balancing Act, Engaged Public

The easiest and most common method used by local governments to get a snapshot of public opinion are surveys. For most issues, like gauging satisfaction with a service, this works very well. However, when it comes to something more dynamic and complex, such as a city or county budget, the evidence is growing that online budget simulations can play a valuable, complementary role.

New technology makes it increasingly easier to create high-quality budget simulations and the recent experience of researchers using it are demonstrating the validity of the data they collect. In April, an international research team presented a paper in Chicago entitled, “A Holistic Approach to Studying Budget Preferences: Using Interactive Budget Tools for Social Science Research.” The authors, John D’Attoma, University of Exeter, Kim-Lee Tuxhorn, University of Calgary, and Sven Steinmo, University of Colorado, make a convincing case that simple, online budget simulations are fully flexible and affordable tools for understanding residents’ budget preferences.

“At its core,” they say, “an interactive budget tool is an online simulation designed to give a holistic perspective of a budget and allow respondents to adjust items within the budget while providing real-time feedback for how their choices affect the overall budget.”

For decades, local government researchers have espoused the benefits of simulations as the best way to offer a meaningful role to residents in the budget process. However, until recently, such simulations were paper-based, required a great deal of staff time and could only involve about 30 people at a time. With advances in Internet technology, they can now be quickly and inexpensively created and include thousands of people. Some can even be created with a simple import from a spreadsheet.

The key features that make simulations useful, according to the researchers, are that they:

  • Give residents a view into the real-world tradeoffs between taxing and spending, rather than simply focusing on one or the other.
  • Show the connection between choices on individual issues and the rest of the budget. Surveys tend to isolate specific issues, which can be useful to understand preferences on a particular item. Simulations, however, immediately show effects on the rest of the budget.
  • Embed context so that relevant information is available prior to making a decision. Graphs, pictures, videos and other explanatory links are just a click away.

Additionally, budget tools can also require residents to observe the same constraints that public officials must. These range from the obvious - such as not spending more than projected revenue - to the locally relevant, such as observing requirements for voter approval or restrictions on how funds can be used.

For example, this simulation of Greensboro, North Carolina’s general fund asks residents to learn about and share their view on how to pay for a new parking garage. Rather than simply responding to a multiple-choice question with their answer, users are presented with three scenarios offering a brief rationale for each option, the cost and instant feedback of the impact on the entire budget.

In another example, residents of Golden, Colorado are helping to select projects to include in a capital plan. Detailed descriptions are provided, including photos in some instances, and residents can visually see the impact of their choices. If more projects are selected than available funds can build, they are offered options of increasing sales or property taxes, or establishing a new tax, such as for lodging or on marijuana sales.

In ways that a survey alone could not, these two examples put residents in the shoes of policy makers and ask them to put their preferences, priorities and values into the task of allocating resources across the entirety of what government does. And, they are also required to observe the same constraints as public officials.

Such online public budget tools were originally created primarily for public engagement purposes and secondarily as a research tool. However, the researchers have demonstrated that with a few modifications, such as randomizing categories and inexpensively recruiting a representative sample of respondents, research can play a much larger role. When it comes to social science research, some say that the best use of interactive budget tools is collecting rich, fine-grained data on user behaviors.

I remember in 2003 when I first discovered the advantages of conducting my own survey and put it to good use to evaluate a leadership program. It was like a whole world of possibilities had opened up. In 2018, when it comes to valid budget research for cities and towns, local government leaders are at a similar moment. A survey and a simulation working together can augment the understanding of resident views on the budget in a powerful and innovative way.


Image Courtesy Chris Adams_Balancing Act_Engaged PublicAbout the Author

Chris Adams has worked in public policy and facilitation for over 25 years. His work has focused primarily on health and health care, but he has also supported policy development in education and natural resources. Prior to founding Engaged Public, Adams was Director and Associate Director of The Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley, California. He has published more than 40 essays in publications including The Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and many others. He is a past speaker at the distinguished Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, delivering five presentations on the theme “Values and Ethics in a Fragile World.” Adams is the former president of the board of Denver Urban Gardens, a network of more than 100 community gardens. He is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Colorado.


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