Open Budget Redmond: Telling the Unique Story of a City Budget
For a budget to accurately tell the story of what a city or state or nation values, and for that budget to be understood by its citizenry, it needs context. Numbers in some tabular form are insufficient when describing the complexities of how a budget works. The most comprehensible budget is not “just a collection of numbers,” it includes definitions, references, analysis, and other tools, which explain the Whys and Whats of allocations.
Presenting its budget as a narrative led the City of Redmond, Washington to publish the document as a PDF for many years. There was simply no better way to show the city’s budget in context.
Better than a PDF
Since launching its open data portal, it’s become clear to the City of Redmond that offering its citizens a self-service site to discover information is an incredible time saver for the City, as well as an invaluable resource to the public. The City’s Department of Finance wanted to open Redmond’s budget in the same way as its open data portal had done for other municipal information; however, the City struggled to find a way to liberate its budgetary data and retain the budget’s narrative.
“We knew we needed to continue to provide insight and details as to what was in the budget,” says Malisa Files, Redmond’s Deputy Finance Director. “And, for transparency’s sake, we wanted to make our budget available in a way that the public could drill down into the numbers.”
Karen Conrad, Webmaster in Redmond’s Information Services Department, reports the challenge was a technical one for Redmond. “Budget data could not be uploaded into data.redmond.gov in a way that would make it useful and understandable to the public,” she explains. “The city considered building its own website to provide this information, but doing so would be costly and time consuming.”
So, Conrad says when Redmond discovered Socrata’s Open Budget App, it made far more sense to employ that solution than have the city create its own.
“It would have been a huge amount of work to put our budget data on our open data portal,” she says. “I was glad to find there was an app with budget buckets which we could easily populate. It would have been impossible to break our budget down into separate datasets, build it back up again, and create the visualizations we get with the Open Budget app.”
Adapting to Redmond's Unique Budget
Karen Luhrs, Senior Programmer at Redmond worked with Socrata to match data from Redmond’s existing internal tool for budgeting to the app’s categories. It was a bit of a challenge, Files reported, as the city uniquely budgets based on priorities, not departments, and over a two-year cycle, versus annually. By default, Open Budget handles data by municipal department, “but Socrata reconfigured the app based on the way we budget,” Files said. “It made it easier for us to enter the data. Plus, the visualizations will make more sense to our city council as well as citizens who know we do priority-driven budgeting.”
As more cities adopt budget transparency tools, Redmond’s Department of Finance looks forward to gaining a greater understanding of how others cities are allocating funding. Redmond, like many other municipalities spends a lot of time comparing how it is doing against others. By using standardized tools, such as the Open Budget app, Redmond, with its unique budgeting style, will be easily able to benchmark its achievements versus others. Files says Redmond is hopeful other jurisdictions will also choose the Open Budget app to make such comparisons as seamless as possible.
Redmond’s Open Budget app will create transparency for the city council and the community, which Files hopes will decrease the number of budget-related questions coming into the Department of Finance.
“Currently, we spend a lot of time going back and forth trying to determine what citizens are looking for,” she says. “Now, they will be able to look for themselves.”
Files reports her department answers a lot of calls from businesses interested in taxes, other cities who are interested in Redmond’s revenue and expenditures, and from community members who might be working on a civic projects or are just curious. The Department of Finance expects the app will also help Redmond’s City Council members, who will now have underlying budgetary data readily available.
Files explains, “When it comes to government budgets, there is a lot to be gained from bringing to light all of the details that make up a budget. And we weren’t there before we went to Socrata.”