No city decision impacts residents more than how government spends its money – especially those residents who are most dependent on government services. Yet 100% of residents in a CBNO survey felt the current Budget Town Halls did not offer meaningful input opportunities; the City Council budget hearings are worse.
To address the need for meaningful input into the city budget, CBNO is managing the People’s Budget Project. Originally begun under the auspices of the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance (NOCOG), the Project today is guided by a Community Steering Committee of partner organizations and individual residents. The purpose is to provide New Orleans residents with the information and tools they need to become actively engaged participants in this most critical of city decisions.
In addition to old fashioned community organizing and informing, CBNO is employing high quality technology to achieve these objectives. Specifically, CBNO has created two discreet but complimentary websites to connect residents to the city budget process.
The first site, dubbed the Big Easy Budget Breakdown, presents the city’s annual budget-to-actual spending going back to 2007, in an easily accessed and understood format. Residents can track revenue sources and fluctuations, department by department spending, overall ups and downs in the total budget, and much more. CBNO worked closely with the city budget staff to develop this site; however, this is the first such site in the United States created by a non-governmental entity.
An even bigger step is being taken with the second website, the Big Easy Budget Game. This site enables any New Orleans resident to create his/her own version of the city budget. Certain parameters are built in to ensure that participants create realistic budgets (i.e., no deficit spending, and there are limits as to how much the funding for any individual department or agency can be increased or decreased). While this may sound daunting, it can in fact be accomplished in fifteen minutes (though participants wishing to spend more time can certainly do so), and community members report that they find the Game to be informative, easy and even fun.
For each budget cycle, CBNO will be working with a variety of partners to promote awareness of, and participation in, the Big Easy Budget Game. This will include going to community events, neighborhood meetings, libraries, churches, etc. with equipment to have people participate and guidance on how to launch into. In addition, the Game can be played on any smart phone. All this will help to ensure that the true diversity of the New Orleans population is represented among the participants.
As each budget cycle draws to a close, CBNO will take the aggregated data (the site automatically assembles the budgets from all participants, along with collecting key demographic data) and compile it into a report on “The People’s Budget”. This information will then be shared with the city budget staff, the mayor and the City Council, as well as being circulated through the community and the media. Then after the official city budget is adopted, CBNO will prepare and circulate an analysis comparing the city budget with the People’s Budget.
CBNO’s long-term objective is to bring Participatory Budgeting (PB) to New Orleans, and in 2016 will be working with a collaborative of organizations in the Lower 9th Ward to do a pilot PB process, using private funds. The Big Easy Budget Game is also a long-term, annual tool for empowering the people of New Orleans to have a meaningful say in how their tax dollars are used and how their priorities are met.
The Big Easy Budget Game has been designed so that it can be adapted and customized for any municipality or jurisdiction in the world. If you are interested in potentially bringing the Big Easy Budget Game to your city or town, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.