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San Antonio Uses an Online Budget Simulator to Boost Citizen Engagement on the Budget


by Kevin Amirehsani, Policy and Program Manager, Engaged Public/Balancing Act

San Antonio, Texas is more than just the seventh-largest city in the US by population, home of one of the most famous riverwalks in the world, and proud center of Spurs country. It’s also a hub of civic innovation.

In 2007, the Alamo City became one of the first big cities in the country to create an innovation department which was tasked with making municipal operations more efficient and effective, ultimately enabling the city to fund other needed programs and services without raising taxes. Indeed, it spawned a mini-“innovation revolution” that has improved numerous city projects and has saved San Antonio more than $17 million.

Perhaps because it’s housed within the budget department, San Antonio’s Office of Innovation made the city’s budget process their focus this past year, turning what is normally a fairly traditional process of sparsely attended “three minutes at the mic”-style budget hearings in most local governments into an interactive, educational, technological, and citizen-friendly budget feedback campaign: SA Speakup.

San Antonio SpeakUp

Through a combination of physical “budget input boxes”, neighborhood meetings, user photo and video submissions, robust social media outreach (including the widely-shared #SASpeakUp hashtag), and extensive use of an online budget simulator, all of which was available in both English and Spanish, San Antonio made sure to meet people where they were, using whatever medium they felt most comfortable with, in order to collect as much resident feedback on the budget as possible.

The city’s budget simulation (Spanish language version available here) was central to the campaign and indicative of its citizen-friendly approach. First, analysts divided the budget into understandable category titles which residents would understand. This part was key. Instead of applying customarily arcane budget jargon such as “Department of Public Works”, more understandable titles were often used, like “Streets” and “Community Development”.

In addition, San Antonio took advantage of the simulator’s unique learning structure. Unlike most budget documents, which often veer towards the 1,000 page mark and contain no easy way for citizens to specify what level of knowledge they want to gain, the budget simulation gave users the basics about the budget, then allowed those who wanted to delve deeper to do so via clickable “More Info” icons and pop-up windows with embeddable links to outside information.

However, the budget simulator also challenged San Antonio residents to actively balance their own version of the city’s budget, subject to the same constraints city council members had. This is where it got interesting. Unlike civic engagement tools that focus on fostering qualitative discussions, or financial transparency suites which display detailed financial visualizations without allowing for meaningful feedback channels, citizens had the ability to learn about the complex tradeoffs necessary to actually balance a general fund budget of over $1 billion, then try their hand at actually balancing increases in certain programs and services with cuts in others.

“Using Balancing Act integrated seamlessly with our new engagement efforts,” said Bryan Layton, San Antonio’s Assistant Budget Director/Assistant Director for Innovation. “Because Balancing Act is online and can be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone, we could easily provide links on our website and on social media accounts. We felt that Balancing Act is a great tool to our ‘layered’ approach to engagement which allows residents to participate as much or as little as they would like online—from liking posts and following @SASpeakUp, to leaving a comment or reposting, or to balancing the budget themselves. This feedback is essential to developing a budget that is financially balanced and reflects the priorities of the community.”

This technique of framing the budget as a fun challenge meant to be learned about and tackled by Alamo City residents worked well in terms of online engagement. Over 1,200 unique users spent more than 10 minutes each on average across the English and Spanish versions of the simulation, which gives a good indication that most gave a lot of thought to their budget choices, clicking the More Info icons to learn descriptive information (without complicated jargon) about each budget item and even going a step further and viewing the “More Detail” section, which listed background information and links to additional resources in order to give users context about what actual spending increases and cuts actually mean (in terms of staff, service areas, national benchmarks, etc.).

“[We wanted] to re-frame the discussion about the budget around the services and people that provide those services, rather than just on the numbers,” Layton added. “We wanted residents to understand context and the balance of allocating limited resources among important quality of life services.  Through the website, social media, and in-person meetings, we also wanted residents to be able to access as much or as little of that information as they wanted to consume.”

Assistant Budget Director Bryan Layton giving residents of San Antonio’s District 10 a primer on Balancing Act at a June 15 public meeting

Using a Budget Simulator within Public Meetings

Another effective tactic of San Antonio officials was combining face-to-face meetings with online engagement. The beauty of web tools is not only that they expand the number and type of people who get involved with public decision making as a result of being able to offer their input at a time and place of their convenience, but also that they bring to life and help increase engagement within in-person meetings, which are still crucial and allow for more nuanced discussions.

Staff from the budget department held numerous meetings in different San Antonio neighborhoods to learn what residents’ budget priorities were. They allowed ample time for people to ask questions and engage in constructive debates about what the city’s fiscal situation was like and which programs and services were most impactful to them. Moreover, within many of these meetings, tablets were provided for residents to use the budget simulator, which often helps spark lively back-and-forth discussions that are both lively and deliberative.

Citizens at a budget meeting in Hartford, CT using a budget simulator to help prioritize revenue and spending items

Finally, San Antonio benefitted greatly by expanding the window of public participation on the budget. Many local governments that desire to engage residents in budget conversations convene community hearings and occasionally use online tools in the run-up to the creation of the proposed budget. Others begin to solicit citizen feedback on the budget after the proposed budget is released. San Antonio took the uncommon step of doing both, with pre-proposed budget meetings taking place in late May and early June, post-proposed budget sessions occurring in August and early September, and its  budget simulation (as well as the rest of its SA SpeakUp apparatus) available throughout the summer, fall, and even now.

What were the results of this ambitious, forward-thinking civic engagement campaign on San Antonio’s budget, meant to essentially crowdsource solutions to pressing budget issues? Across all platforms, the city received over 19,000 comments, and citizens’ top three priorities were streets/sidewalk maintenance, social and senior services, and parks and recreation. What’s more, San Antonio elected officials took heed of this. In fact, their adopted budget for Fiscal Year 2016 (their largest ever) included a $23 million increase in street maintenance and a $10 million increase in sidewalk/pedestrian safety, all while reducing property taxes. Furthermore, recent budget amendments added $3.7 million in programs, much of which included support for various social and senior services, as well as additional money for streets. In short, San Antonians’ voices were largely heard, and we’re proud that our online budget simulator was part of the reason.

Balancing Act is an online budget simulator developed by the Denver-based civic engagement firm Engaged Public. From Meridian, Idaho to Kansas City, Missouri, local governments, public districts, and states of all sizes have used Balancing Act to make their budget processes more transparent, educational, interactive, and ultimately engaging for residents. By turning complex, often arcane budget details into fun, easy-to-understand simulations and data visualizations, Balancing Act helps puts citizens back at the center of budget processes, while streamlining data collection for public officials. A complementary tool, the Taxpayer Receipt, shows residents exactly where their money goes by giving them a “receipt” for their taxes.

For more information, please email info@abalancingact.com or call 1-888-727-8269.

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