Unlocking Boston’s budget

Katie Hammer
Apr 24, 2017 · 4 min read

Until this year, three books, 860 pages, and almost 2.5 inches of data-rich Boston budget and performance information was buried in a PDF format. What’s worse, to really understand Boston’s budget, you needed to have two of the volumes open at the same time: Volume I to provide narrative and Volumes II and III to see the budget figures. This year, the Budget Office worked closely with the City’s Digital Team to unlock this budget information with the public in three new ways: an in-depth budget website at budget.boston.gov, a quick 100-second video on how the budget works, and live streams of budget presentations on Facebook and YouTube.

On our new website:

It’s important for us that people understand the budgeting process, so we made a video using a real example, our investment in a hokey street cleaner for every Public Works District, from this year’s operating budget.

Context is everything when trying to examine a budget. Sometimes department budgets are misunderstood by focusing only on an increase or decrease from the previous year without understanding the drivers of those changes. At a high level, every cabinet page describes the major changes in the department budgets right next to the budgeted figures. You can examine the Police department budget and learn that while their budget is increasing by 2.6%, they are avoiding $10 million in overtime costs and investing in 20 new police cadets to provide a stable pipeline of diverse young people for future police officer classes. Budget.boston.gov also helps us explain how funding for City employee cost of living increases — while still very much necessary to pay the teachers that educate our children and rangers that patrol our parks — is centralized in collective bargaining reserves until collective bargaining negotiations are complete.

The new website makes our capital plan more accessible. Over 14,000 voices informed our Imagine Boston Capital Plan, and we wanted to make sure they could see how their input has been implemented. Budget.boston.gov organizes our capital projects into Imagine Boston 2030 initiatives and explains how those projects are aligned with BuildBPS, GoBoston 2030 and other plans under the Imagine Boston 2030 umbrella. For example, the website explains how Boston, in collaboration with State and Federal sources, will invest $709 million over the next five years in implementing the core initiatives outlined in Go Boston 2030.

Mayor Walsh presented the Imagine Boston Capital Plan in East Boston at the Central Square transportation and park projects. To make sure residents from all parts of Boston could experience that event, we moved beyond the limitations of the site and live streamed the presentations on Facebook and YouTube. Most importantly, we had two live stream cameras recording at the same time so you could watch both the presenter and get context from the presentation. We live streamed the launch of the operating budget one week earlier, too.

As we launch our City Council hearing process today, which you’re welcome to attend, we are excited to share our operating budget and capital plan with you. We hope you will dive into our featured analysis cards to learn about our revenue, watch our live streams on social media, and play with our interactive map to see the capital projects in your neighborhoods. Now that you know how the budget works, review Mayor Walsh’s recommendations for how we’ll build a thriving, healthy, and innovative City together as Bostonians.

More about the project:

In partnership with the Budget Office, the project was led by the City’s Digital Team as part of our commitment to making City information more accessible to the public. Building on the newly redesigned Boston.gov, we used Jekyll to pull information from the budgeting software into the dynamic tables you see on budget.boston.gov today.

Katie Hammer

Written by

Budget Director, City of Boston

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