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