Following the Spending Review, significant spending cuts are becoming a reality for many public services. The issue of how to engage citizens in budget consultations to define local priorities is becoming all the more important.
Redbridge have re-launched their YouChoose application for 2010, which allows residents to balance a complex budget using an interactive tool. The tool reveals consequences of your budget choices as you change the sliders to reduce the budget in different areas. There are four main areas to manage the budget within, which drill down to more detail. For example the consequences of reducing funding for Culture, Sport and Leisure results in libraries being closed. Using the tool requires quite a bit of time and may not appeal to people who have limited time on their hands to contribute their views.
This week Cambridgeshire Constabulary launched a budget balancing tool. It is similar to the Redbridge concept, but with a far simpler interface.
As a resident I gave it a go and had a few thoughts about the approach.
Personally I find these budget calculators a useful educational tool. They help demonstrate how complex budgets are allocated across different areas and how the spending cuts will dramatically affects budgets and therefore the challenges faced by the public sector. They won’t be for everyone though.
Judging by the comments on the Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget tool, some people find the exercise trivial, whilst others find it useful and insightful. Other people worry about the impact of their decisions and whether they are sufficiently well informed to prioritise budgets. The comments also reveal some interesting political perspectives and, occasionally, what I found to be less than palatable opinions. But that’s what a democracy is all about I guess!
However, as a resident what I would really like to do is enter into an active discussion with other residents, politicians and the organisation whose budget I am making choices about. For me these tools are the start of a consultation and conversation. I know that this approach would require resources for facilitation and moderation, but in my mind the type of decisions that need to be made to address the budget deficit require that depth of engagement. I would like to see these tools linked into hyperlocal websites, or a platform that is designed for deliberation, rather than leaving me wondering how residents’ choices are being reviewed and considered by those setting the budgets.
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