Q&A with the Powerhouse Panel

April 15, 2015 9:37 am PST | Data as a Service

Following their illuminating talk on how their governments have progressed so far so fast with open performance, Kate Bender and Julie Steenson of Kansas City, MO, and Maryland’s Matt Power take questions from Beth Blaeur, Socrata’s Director of Open Performance.


Stories Inside the Data

Blauer begins by incisively examining at how approaches to performance based budgeting can affect communities. “Is it just about showing visualizations and letting your budget tell the story,” she asks, or “is how you’re investing in priorities,” a deeper process of evaluation and civic engagement.

Many data experts work for elected officials, who may struggle to balance performance analysis with public pressure when it comes to assessing what to cut. Blauer offers a hypothetical example: “That small after-school program in the basement of that woman in West Baltimore, we’re going to cut that because it only serves seven kids.” However, Blauer notes, retaining the program may mean all seven of those kids finish high school.

She quizzes the panel, “How do you strike the balance,” between political demands, what the data reveals, and limited opportunity for impacting the budget?

Shift the Internal Culture

Power tells performance analysts in the audience, “you have to know the culture you’re operating in.” He explains, “if there’s one group that almost always survives transitions, it’s the budget folks,” because of the labyrinthine nature of budget work. New administrations need that expertise from the first day in office. “It’s exceedingly difficult to get that information and figure out what the state is really spending money on,” and linking that to the priorities and goals is twice as hard, Power notes.

“Getting it out there and getting it to citizens, reporters, journalists, and others, where everyone can make those links,” Power says, paves a path to, “having those debates on the ways we should be spending our money.”

Citizen Input Ranks High

Blauer then highlights Kansas City’s Citizen Survey, explaining how Bender and Steenson’s KCStat team converts citizens’ feedback into performance management. She delves into the process. “How do you connect to the citizen engagement piece,” she asks, to not only survey the public, but also, “continuously engage them in dialogue?”

Steenson explains, “our city finance department and budget office have created a five-year financial plan,” to evaluate budget priorities, “and the city manager has really tasked them with working with us to help make those connections.” She also concurs with Power’s earlier comment, “you’re right, it’s totally cultural change, it’s making the dollars and the outcomes in the same conversation.”

Bender adds, “the last six years have been a time of incredibly constrained resources,” so even with perfectly aligned budgets and outcomes, “there is no extra money,” and KCStat’s impact opportunity lies at the margins of budget decisions. “Part of the goal with a five-year budget is to shift the funding over time,” toward the community’s higher priorities.

Share the Numbers, Change the World

Bender shares an anecdote from a recent citizens’ engagement forum, where participants collaborated on visioning and budget prioritizing. After Bender and Steenson’s team presented, participants immediately started working off priorities gleaned from the Citizen Survey. “It was powerful, as opposed to if we’d said, ‘Here are the council priorities,’ ” enthuses Bender.

Blauer concludes, “how we’re using data internally in government,” gets to the core of how performance based budgeting can, “drive change, produce results,” and truly benefit communities.

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