IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Balancing Act Debuts Tool Giving the Public a Say in Budgets

As local and state governments gear up for federal stimulus dollars, the firm is releasing software that allows members of the public to rank budgeting choices against each other to show where their priorities lie.

budgeting_shutterstock_522559909
The budgeting process can be both painful and revealing for public agencies.

The pain comes from the allocation of resources that are always limited. The revelations come from figuring out what really matters to communities and other governmental units.

But as public engagement software continues to advance in the world of government technology, Denver-based Balancing Act is making its own play to grab some of that market via the public budgeting process.

The company’s newest software-as-a-service tool, called Prioritize, has officially launched. It aims to bring more citizen voice and influence to the creation of capital and operating budgets. This new product comes as Balancing Act continues to promote its recently released public engagement tool centered around local housing plans.

The general idea behind Prioritize seems pretty simple on the surface: via such features as images, maps, monetary figures and other information, give residents a way to communicate through software what projects and potential expenditures are most important to them.

Doing so involves having those residents rank their favorite projects and basically build their own virtual government budget plans — which in turn can help officials determine what projects are most deserving of limited tax revenues and grants.

DIGITAL EDUCATION


It’s a task that traditionally has been handled via in-person public meetings — whether full city council gatherings or zoning and budgeting committee events — public comments and even paper- or phone-based community surveys.

This new public engagement technology — as is the case with most such software on the market — is not necessarily designed to replace those other methods but to make the budgeting process more efficient and wide-ranging.

“The public is not necessarily experts about budgets,” said Balancing Act President Chris Adams to Government Technology.

But this new software tool is designed to bring more of that expertise to the public at large.

NORFOLK


According to a recent product demonstration led by Adams, city officials in Norfolk, Va., use the software to list the various budget targets up for grabs as the public agency decides what it can and wants to fund.

Those items might include anything from park equipment to sidewalk repairs to additional police officers. They are arranged via visual boxes that also include the estimated cost for a particular project, as well as text and geographic details about that item.

Residents who engage with the Balancing Act tool via the city’s website can choose and rank their favored projects, with the running budgetary total of those choices added up at the top of the screen. Next to that running total is the total budgetary amount at play.

Residents using the tool can choose to remain anonymous, but they can also offer their locations — including via digital pin drops — so that, according to Adams, the governmental client has a better sense of where opponents or supporters of specific budget items live.

After all, the tool also is meant to guide officials as they craft budgets, not just offer an outlet for residents.

“You can also prioritize within the budget,” Adams said, “and our local governments love that.”

RANKED CHOICES


Indeed, during the product demo, Adams played up how the tool enables users to make ranked choices about specific budget items, and how the back-end algorithms can produce weighted and unweighted results for public officials, along with similar features designed to help those government professionals decide what to fund.

“It can also do head-to-head matchups with projects, which can be a nice tiebreaker,” Adams said.

Beyond those specifics, Balancing Act and Adams are using another pitch to sell this product, a pitch not uncommon as other companies try to sell their own public engagement and budgeting software: The oncoming influx of federal stimulus money to local and state governments, which — while certainly favorable to public agencies — promise to complicate the decision-making process for many budgeting officials.

In the view of Adams, the software offered by Balancing Act can add clarity to figuring out how to spend those stimulus dollars.

DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT GROWTH


The official release of this new tool comes amid ongoing growth in public engagement software designed for state and local governments — a trend that was lively before the pandemic but which gained much more spark as public officials strove to keep open lines of communication with residents during all those lockdowns and all that social distancing.

Competitors and peers of Balancing Act are also gearing up their own efforts to increase their share of this part of the gov tech market — which means, of course, that public officials will face more choices about what type of software and associated tools to deploy for public engagement.

One example comes from California-based Esri, which sells geographic information software and similar tools to public agencies, including its cloud-based ArcGIS, an interactive web-mapping and data-analysis product.

Its advertising material provides at least a hint of evidence of where the market is headed.

Among the main trends in this area of gov tech, according to Esri, is software that makes it easier for the public to offer input on what their local governments are doing — while at the same time offering better address and location data about those residents to those officials so they can take that into account when crafting initiatives.

“Government agencies are extending their investments in GIS by using technology to engage citizens in civic discussions; draw on their opinions, expertise and energy; and build strong communities that are more aware, informed and involved,” is how Esri puts it as it promotes these technologies and tries to expand the market. “With everyone working together and using dynamic tools, governments and their citizens are succeeding in making their communities better places.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.