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 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
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karyn Bruggeman, Jan Geffert, & Isabel Schünemann