Imagining New Tools for Budget Engagement

This blog post is part of a series from a team of Harvard Kennedy School students working on improving public engagement with the City of Boston’s budget: part #1, Demystifying City Spending Decisions, and part #2, How Citizens Make Their Voices Heard.

This semester, we’ve listened to dozens of Boston residents to learn about how they advocate for their priorities in the City budget. Our main takeaway: you currently have to know a lot and do a lotto engage with the budget. 

One of our brainstorming sessions on the public hearing experience.

One of our brainstorming sessions on the public hearing experience.

Engaged residents and public officials told us that the most effective way of ensuring your concerns are heard is to talk directly to your elected representative or a city official in charge of your issue. Building on this insight, we brainstormed the specific challenges people face as they seek these encounters, and generated ideas to improve the process. Currently, the city’s website, boston.gov, is the primary resource available to Bostonians to learn about specifics of the budget and to find out when and how to speak to city officials.

Testing to Engage with the Budget 

To refine our thinking, we interviewed Boston residents to understand how they navigate the existing website. Even though a city budget is a complex topic we were able to identify several pain points that people face when trying to  learn more about the budget and about how to engage with the process.

Finding Information: Residents sometimes had difficulty finding the information they were looking for. Even very specific terms that they entered into search engines would not always lead them to the City’s official website. In cases in which an official search entry would appear it would not necessarily be the exact page they were looking for. The search functionality on boston.gov worked well for some budget topics and less well for others.

The residents we interviewed also told us that they usually find out about opportunities to engage with the City through channels other than the official website. One woman mentioned that her sister would usually receive information from advocacy groups through email. 

Challenging Language: The framing and descriptions on official boston.gov budget pages were at times hard to understand for the residents we spoke with. The City uses abbreviations and finance terms like “expenditures,” “authorized spending,” or “projected spending”—that are not instantly comprehensible for all. A glossary is available to address this challenge, but there might be better ways to integrate definitions and context. Generally, residents found the boston.gov/budget page to be intuitive. 

Screen Recording: One Boston resident, Jessica, repeatedly switched between the glossary and budget information pages to understand the terminology and figures of the Boston Public School budget.

Screen Recording: One Boston resident, Jessica, repeatedly switched between the glossary and budget information pages to understand the terminology and figures of the Boston Public School budget.

User Centric Design: The information provided on various budget pages didn’t always match the information users were looking for. Some issues that users tried to learn more about were only covered within larger chunks of the budget. The information provided was often too broad and only listed general information on big budget items.

Some pages lacked an opportunity to dig deeper into the budget. Faisal, for example, wanted to learn more about the city’s bike lane strategy in Jamaica Plain where he was trying to buy a house for his family. Instead of navigating to an overall bike strategy page on boston.gov, he was only able to find a specific, narrow spending program that was listed in the “transportation” budget which he did not immediately associate with cycling.

Education and Engagement Information Siloed: Currently, educational budget information and opportunities to participate in the budget process are communicated separately. Once they found budget information on a topic they cared about, users missed a chance to engage. The main opportunity to reach out to the city is through the generic email address of the budget office. 

Barriers to Participating in Hearings: People who were aware of public hearings surrounding the budget process and tried to attend one found it challenging to find information about those specific hearings online, such as time, place, and agenda. They tried various approaches, from scrolling through the Public Notices page on boston.gov, using the built-in search functionality on the page  or that of Google. 

Prototyping

We want to better guide users through learning about the budget on issues they care about and about their opportunities to engage on that issue. For this we want to test how much and what kind of information is valuable for them, which language they understand that also accurately represents the budget, and create easier and new opportunities to enter a dialogue with the City of Boston.

One early prototype of ours will be a centralized landing page that consolidates all relevant information concerning budget hearings in one place. In doing so, we want to test various forms of presenting information about the budget and integrating modes of engagement to the user. 

Karyn Bruggeman, Jan Geffert, & Isabel Schünemann

Learning From Bostonians: How Citizens Make Their Voices Heard

On a recent Saturday morning, Segun Idowu told a small crowd gathered in Roxbury the story of how he had helped to win city support, and $2 million in funding, for a police body camera program.

One of his main insights about the success of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, which he had co-founded in light of the national debate after the Ferguson protests, was the following: If your idea requires city money, you need to come prepared with a detailed plan, target your pitch toward those who control the purse strings, and mobilize coalitions to back your plan so you’re not working alone. 

This was all sound advice for the people who had come to the meeting to learn about how to effectively advocate for issues they care about, but, at the same time, would also be a lot to ask of someone who’s new to advocacy or may not even know where City Hall is. 

Segun is an example of someone who could be described as a power user when it comes to interacting with Boston’s governing decisions. He’s an effective advocate because his knowledge of city power structures — who to talk to, and which processes to target — and highly engaged in city activities. 

Most Bostonians are not this engaged (nor would it be reasonable to expect people to be) and don’t know as much about the city’s budget process. This poses a challenge, as issue advocacy is often linked to budget decisions. There’s a dollar amount behind everything the city does and city spending is therefore a reflection of the city’s values.

For this reason, we, a team of three students enrolled in a field class at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by Professor Nick Sinai, want to answer the question of how we can ensure that Bostonians have easy and equal opportunities to have their voices reflected in the City’s budget decisions. You can learn more about this class and our project in collaboration with the City of Boston’s Budget Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology in our first blog post

To better understand the problem that we were trying to solve, we set out to learn what Bostonians are already doing to make their voices heard and where they encounter challenges in doing so. We conducted a total of 29 interviews with Bostonians from nine different neighborhoods, interviewed nine staff members at City Hall, and attended five public events.

Events pictured: A City Life Vida Urbana rally in East Boston, a Build BPS Boston Public School budget hearing at City Hall, and a civic engagement training hosted by City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Events pictured: A City Life Vida Urbana rally in East Boston, a Build BPS Boston Public School budget hearing at City Hall, and a civic engagement training hosted by City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Who We Found

We then grouped what we had learned into four personas, i.e. types of people we encountered:

  • The first were lumberjacks, or power users like Segun who are highly sophisticated activists. 

  • Gardeners: These people actively tend to community issues, just like a gardener tends to their plants. They’re more casual in their approach, but do things like attend neighborhood association meetings, meet-and-greets with their city council member, volunteered on a local campaign, or other activities.

  • Failed Lumberjacks: These are people who at one point in their life were active in community issues. They might have even built a network of city contacts through friends or colleagues. Yet, eventually they decided their involvement wasn’t working. It wasn’t making an impact or they felt the city didn’t care about their priorities, so they gave up. 

  • Greenhorns: These oftentimes younger residents who recently moved to the city, such as students, never had an issue that made them think about local government and don’t have an opinion on budget issues.

Key Takeaways

After talking with all four types of Boston residents, we had some central takeaways:

  • Residents are often motivated by particular issues, and are less likely to seek out information about the entire city budget;

  • Even the most engaged, politically aware citizens don’t engage with the budget process;

  • City Councilis often the main point of contact;

  • Modes of interactionwith the city are numerous;

  • Attending in-person meetings is challenging for many Bostonians;

  • Digital communication does not always play a substantial role—not every Bostonian subscribes to city email lists or follows city activities on social media; 

  • lack of trust exists among some communities; and

  • There’s a noticeable lack of feedback from the city when people attend city events, give public testimony at a hearing, or otherwise engage. 

With these people in mind, we will turn our attention next to prototyping solutions for Bostonians.

Karyn Bruggeman, Jan Geffert, & Isabel Schünemann

Demystifying City Spending Decisions

Government budgets are boring. They are complex, detailed, and not something most people think about.

 Scrolling through the City of Boston’s recent budget, for example, looks like this: 

Budgets can be confusing. But how cities spend money, and the values that guide spending choices lie at the heart of everything cities do, and Boston is no exception. City spending impacts Bostonian resident’s every day. Budget choices determine things like: 

●     Whether local public schools can make renovations, hire more teachers, or add new bus routes.  

●     How much money is set aside to plow streets after a snowstorm or fix that annoying pothole or broken sidewalk.

●     How many hours a day your neighborhood public library is open. 

●     Whether police and fire departments have the training and resources they need to keep people safe.

●     How far you have to travel to get to your polling place on Election Day.  

Ideally, residents would understand how city decisions are made and have opportunities to provide feedback on how money should be spent, suggest new programs, and report back on whether city services are working well (or not). 

A two-way, ongoing conversation between residents and the city doesn’t happen often. Budgets are tough to explain. They get heralded once a year at public ceremonies before seemingly disappearing from view. Most of the feedback the city gets is negative, because people understandably tend to speak up most when something is wrong. Feedback also isn’t necessarily representative. Well-organized groups already have contacts at City Hall, while the average Boston resident who wants to voice concerns about issues in their neighborhood may not know who to contact, or how. Residents may also not have time to reach out to city representatives due to job schedules, family obligations, or could face language barriers, disability, or more. It’s a challenge the city is grappling with in need of some creative solutions. That’s where we come in. 

Introducing the Harvard Team

Featured (left to right): Isabel Schünemann, Karyn Bruggeman, and Jan Geffert

Featured (left to right): Isabel Schünemann, Karyn Bruggeman, and Jan Geffert

We’re a team of students enrolled in a field class this spring at Harvard Kennedy School taught by Professor Nick Sinai. We are working with the City of Boston’s Budget Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology to explore ways to demystify the city budget and give residents meaningful ways to get involved. Here’s a little more about each of us:

●     Karyn Bruggeman is a public policy master’s (MPP) student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before grad school, she worked out of Washington, D.C. as the communications director for the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a policy strategy and research center for a national network of state legislators. Prior to that she spent four years as a national political reporter for National Journal in D.C. covering campaigns and elections. 

●     Jan Geffert studies computer science at Harvard College and is interested in how society and technology shape each other. He is a member of the Ethical Tech Working Group at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and has worked in software engineering, most recently at Facebook. Prior to college, Jan was Campaign Coordinator at Schüler Helfen Leben, Germany’s largest youth-led humanitarian organization, building the digital infrastructure to support more than 80,000 student activists.

●     Isabel Schünemann is a master’s in public administration (MPA) candidate and McCloy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a research assistant at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She specializes in the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence. Isabel previously spent five years as program manager with Germany's largest and most traditional non-profit where she worked with German and European policy-makers as well as educational leaders on bringing technology into higher education.

What We’ve Learned So Far

Our class project is just getting underway, but from talking with staff at City Hall and exploring the Budget Office’s website, we’re learning how the budget serves the city. The city’s total budget for the past year was $3.29 billion. Most city funding comes from property taxes, and it primarily goes toward public schools, police and fire departments, and other public goods like libraries and parks, and maintaining city roads and bridges. According to the City of Boston, here is the breakdown: 

City of Boston Annual Budget, 2018-2019

City of Boston Annual Budget, 2018-2019

 

Compared to a lot of other major U.S. cities, Boston is generally in good financial health

 We’ve also learned that opportunities for the average Bostonian to understand the budget, let alone influence it, are currently limited. This isn’t for lack of trying. The City of Boston has an extensive website dedicated to explaining the budget. The schedule of public budget hearings at City Hall and other community meetings seeking public input are posted online, and the city has a modernized 311 tip line for residents to report needed repairs. City residents can also write, call, or email city council members or City Hall staff at any time. 

 However, many public hearings are poorly attended and scheduled only after the budget has already been nearly finalized in early summer. Specific schedules, contacts, and resources related to the budget process take some work to find. Overall, resident engagement on city spending is relatively low, including through online channels. Over 685,000 people live in Boston, and one explanatory video about the budget from last year, for example, got around 4,500 views across various social media platforms. 

Help Us Help Boston

●     Have you ever thought about or heard about the Boston city budget?

●     Have you tried to advocate for City of Boston spending and found obstacles to being heard?

●     Do you live in a city outside Boston that informs and involves citizens in local spending decisions particularly well?

Get in touch! If you have ideas or suggestions, reach out so we can learn from you.Contact us at karyn_bruggeman@student.hks.harvard.edu, isabel_schunemann@student.hks.harvard.edu, and jangeffert@college.harvard.edu.

Karyn Bruggeman, Jan Geffert, & Isabel Schünemann