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New App Transforms Budgets Into Interactive Infographics

'Balancing Act' illustrates how balancing a budget is a game of compromises, letting users tweak the numbers to see how their budget is affected.

In 2015, people seem to have forgotten what democracy means. Government exists to serve the people, and the money collected in taxes is supposed to be spent on things that the people want and need. And a new cloud-based budgeting app is providing citizens and governments a chance to collaborate more closely on one of the most important decisions a government makes: where to spend.

This app -- called Balancing Act, developed by Engaged Public and Causelabs -- is an interactive infographic that allows users to tweak the numbers and see how the budget is affected. Users can see that increasing a city’s parks and recreation budget creates a budget deficit, meaning either other services need to be scaled back or taxes must be increased to cover the new costs. A generic simulation allows anyone to play with the tool and see how balancing a budget is a game of compromises.

The tool is now being used by at least two municipalities: the state of Colorado and Hartford, Conn.

The state of Colorado hosts its budget through Balancing Act, allowing citizens to easily see how they are being taxes and where their money is being spent. Education and health care are the biggest items in Colorado, with a combined cost of $6.9 billion. 

Users who want a personalized receipt of where their money went can also use the tax receipt tool. Many municipalities put tax information on their open data portals, but few make it as clear as Colorado, which shows precisely how a citizen’s money is being spent. A 40 year-old in the Centennial State who makes $65,000 annually, for instance, can see that he contributes $783.61 to the public schools fund, 94 cents goes to libraries, and $147.99 of his hard-earned money pays for prisons.

Balancing Act lets governments inform its citizenry and gives citizens a chance to be better informed, said Chris Adams, president of Engaged Public. Most municipalities use a PDF or some kind of spreadsheet to publicize their budget data, he said, but Balancing Act provides transparency that people can access and allows them to participate in the budgeting process.

“An educated citizenry is the hallmark of a healthy democracy,” Adams said. “But we also believe that engaging people, that giving them a chance to have their say is important.”

Hartford, Conn., uses Balancing Act as part of its annual People’s Budget event, a meeting of citizens, revitalization coalition Hartford 2000 and government employees, including Mayor Pedro Segarra. This year’s workshop, held on March 12 and March 21, was the first year Balancing Act was used, and it made a big difference, said Richard Frieder, community engagement director for the Hartford Public Library's Cultural Affairs & Public Programming Department.

“My job at the library is to build relationships here in the community and to develop an understanding of the needs of the community and help figure out how the library can respond to those needs,” Frieder explained.

Balancing Act helps bring the city’s budget to life for people, he said, and have their opinions heard by the mayor, who spent several hours at the event this year.

“Not having to sit there with calculators and pencils and all the stuff out, it was much better for people," Frieder said. "They got to spend less time on the laborious sort of grunt work and they could spend more time on the discussion and the developing scenarios, and they could see everything. I think it was a big improvement."

The event received a lot of positive feedback, he added, and the goal of educating the public and getting people involved in the budgeting process was a success.

Hartford resident Carlos Bonett said he attended the People’s Budget event because he was worried about an increase in taxes. “It’s been an interesting experience,” Bonett told event organizers. “I learned that half the properties in Hartford don’t pay taxes. There are a lot of properties like small churches and nonprofits that don’t pay taxes, and I imagine that homeowners are the ones who pay taxes in place of them.”

Another event attendee, Claudette Worth, agreed the process was interesting. “It’s been good to see how people come together, come to a consensus on issues that they may not have thought about before and how tough some of the decisions are to make,” she said.

Citizens or governments interested in Balancing Act can search by zip code for budgets in their area, and if there’s nothing available, they can request to have their regional budgets added.

Editor's Note: This story was edited on April 17 to reflect the correct name of the application.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.