Pathways for public engagement in budgeting to address community needs

Driving inclusive open budgeting through user-centered research and open-source software

Gregory Johnson
Dec 8, 2020 · 7 min read
A mockup of our Product Design Iteration 3.0 created by Gregory Johnson

As a John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow, I’m exploring public engagement in budgeting that helps address community needs through tech-enabled demonstrations in my hometown of Miami, Florida.

This work comes at a critical time when socioeconomic disparities and the coronavirus pandemic have led to evictions, unemployment, and food insecurity, and have sparked significant movements, including what may be the largest movement in U.S history, Black Lives Matter.

The budget and how its funds are allocated are a reflection of government priorities. People are hurting, and it’s important to make sure governments especially at the local level, prioritize the people’s needs. When everybody is working in the open, everybody’s interests can become aligned. Through best-operating practices of the digital age and agile methodologies, I am building a digital service prototype that demonstrates the possibilities of a more transparent and engaged government. This effort will focus on working at the municipal level for English and Spanish-speaking communities.

In Miami, public comment, and residential feedback have increased substantially - so much that the elected officials opt not to listen to it all. Taxpayer dollars pay for the salaries of these public servants, and the growing number of protests shared that many communities want to see significant changes in how their tax dollars are used. When your money is going to people not listening to your needs it creates distrust and unrest. By having a transparent budget process, the local government can gain trust within the community. The City Budget connects the preference of people with government outcomes. If the preference represents the minority or selects a few we get outcomes that don’t align with the majority of the community's true needs. More often, this majority is low-income marginalized communities and is hurting the most in our cities.

A snapshot of the City of Miami’s Operating Budget Expenditures in 2018.

Citizens voted for public officials and these public officials appoint their own functionaries, who on principle should represent the needs and interests of the people that elected them. Therefore, people not only want to know where their tax dollars are going, but they want to decide where it should be invested. Some cities are exploring ways to include resident feedback in the budgetary process. In Philadelphia, we see a partnership between the Participatory Budgeting Project and the City of Philadelphia to use participatory budgeting. This takes inspiration from some shining examples from other countries that have successfully adopted other Participatory Budgeting models.

As a public interest technologist, upgrading cities to serve the 21st century by demonstrating better digital services continues to be my focus. We need to improve antiquated budget processes that don’t connect to positive outcomes. Cities need to not only think of the social, physical but also look towards digital public infrastructure models that facilitate feedback between citizens and their local government. These models will require new approaches to how budgets are determined and allocated. It will also require defaulting to open-source software to help cities create better experiences and outcomes.

Funding What Works and Reinvesting What Doesn’t

A user research survey 2020 report from South Florida by Code for South Florida.

Elected government officials are in charge of allocating budgets at the state and local level. The assumption is that they are making the best decisions for the people. What if elected officials could look somewhere and find the exact asks and needs of the people not only based on sentiment and feedback, but also on proposed budgets by citizens? Imagine all that feedback captured, analyzed, and used in data-driven decisions. The discovery and prototype effort I am pushing addresses this through localized open-source software that could be replicated at scale.

Many areas of government have inflated budgets. Redirecting taxpayer dollars to some other agencies and services would be more productive in meeting the needs of the community. According to former President Obama by using the term “defund police,” the Black Lives Matter miss a huge audience. The same goes for publishing a fancy budget visualization with no context. For this reason, my work is not just proposing an open budgeting model but working with local media organizations to share these insights through data journalism and storytelling. If anyone understands messaging for local communities, it’s local journalists, who tell the stories of the places where they reside and the communities they live in. Making the budget simple to understand for the community is an important step in this direction.

Leveraging Tech Experience Scaling Digital Services for Community and Organizations

A photo of 2015 — Sunburst Visualization of the Miami-Dade County Budget. Write-up found at New Tropic Miami.

Throughout my years as a technologist, I have worked with many teams to unlock budget data from PDFs and spreadsheets to create information technology services that are accessible and provide a better user experience. In 2015, I worked to visualize Miami-Dade County budget data as a side project with Code for Miami. What we learned is fancy graphs get attention, but simple bite-sized visuals get people to understand. Our work was recognized by Miami-Dade County and journalists alike inspiring the City of Miami’s Budget Director to create his own. What gets people to act in a meaningful way? In an improved process, I am exploring ideas of placing data visualizations and associated projects with ways people can tune in to upcoming meetings related to that budgetary item.

An ongoing theme in my career is helping organizations make better financial decisions and engage populations through technology. Through being an operator and product owner, addressing big problems start with understanding the needs of people, community, and organizations. We have already seen how important government involvement and response is during a crisis like natural disasters and pandemics. This is why it is important to listen to the needs of our community. In our research, we discovered people want to get involved in learning about their budget but find it confusing and inaccessible. They also are confused about where the money is going and how budget allocations will help them in their time of need. We spent time understanding better ways to improve how budgets are presented so people can make decisions, and decision-makers see the views of their community.

Florida is a melting pot with a population that is composed of many immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. Culture is important when introducing new models of budgeting because many foreign-born U.S. residents have different takes on how governments work. This is why in my research we reviewed how other communities look at public budgeting in English and Spanish. In our case, such a large proportion of Miami speaks Spanish that local media organizations like the Miami Herald have Spanish-speaking arms like “El Nuevo Herald” (“The New Herald” in the Spanish language).

According to the European Parliament, Latin America has one-third of the world’s examples of participatory budgeting at the local government level. Participatory budgeting activates people around an election-like process for allocating municipal funds. This predisposition among Latin American immigrants to expect a different type of resident-government relationship is why I believe the Miami community is open to using new tools that will help them better understand their budget. Evidence in scale and adoption of open source solutions are already present in participatory budgeting, which makes Miami an opportune place to expand this type of work in a form that matches our unique needs.

Scaling discovery and impact practices through open source

The pandemic has shown a big gap in how the state and local government in Florida serves people, highlighting a need for better services that are reliable and allow people to be served with dignity. In my work, I hope to discover scalable prototypes that help bridge awareness of community needs in budgetary decisions through resident feedback. The answer to this work might not be the creation of a new tool but the improvement of an existing service by the government. We learn this by listening to what the people have to say and leveraging technology to address problems when it’s necessary not because we can.

This project seeks to figure out pathways to make sure every service built by the government serves a diverse and inclusive community. I’ll measure our success by seeing how much participation our pilot attracts from citizens and organizations. I will look at cloud computing, data journalism, and more importantly new civic engagement models across different areas to encourage people in Miami to adopt. The magic of this work is open source that allows others to learn from or replicate this type of work in their city or region without hassle. My hope is that the work Code for South Florida is doing with municipal partners like the City of Miami can set an example that inspires journalists, academics, activists, and elected officials at the municipal level across the U.S to not just research and adopt participatory budgeting practices, but also rethink how governments and its people can foster a better relationship in the name of public interest.

Gregory Johnson is a JSK Community Impact Fellow and spearheads digital transformation for the public, private and community sectors through his work as founder of the nonprofit Code for South Florida.

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JSK Class of 2021

Insights from the JSK Community Impact Fellows