Topeka: A Lesson in Gaining Stakeholder Support
In many ways, the City of Topeka’s open budget portal has been a straightforward execution — the kind of informative portal that cities nationwide are implementing left and right as accessible open data becomes the norm.
Look closer at the city’s budget-portal build process, however, and what becomes clear is this: the team has executed not just a visually compelling, fiscal-focused portal, but a brilliant lesson in how to persuade the many stakeholders, such as government layers and media outlets, to support the investment.
“With most governments, we deal with funds — enterprise funds or bonds and other types,” explains Sherry Schoonover, City of Topeka Deputy IT Director. “But for citizens, this can be confusing, so we wanted to present something different, as well as show citizens where our money is going.”
Schoonover shopped around before choosing Socrata’s Open Budget platform to power Topeka’s open budget portal, which she says offered an interactive, easy-to-navigate, visually appealing format.
But instead of selling the solution to project stakeholders in written or diagram form, she decided to take a page from a TV producer’s playbook — she worked with Socrata to create a pilot.
“I found out long ago that rather than putting something in a white paper or on whiteboards, I do a proof of concept or a pilot. It’s a lot easier to explain,” she says.
For the pilot, her team loaded just one dataset, Topeka’s 2015 budget (traditionally a 200-page budget book), which Schoonover’s eight-person team had spent five months re-categorizing into the public’s “really hot” budget-search interests, such as “public safety” and “infrastructure.”
Choosing this first dataset was a strategic move. First of all, city leaders had already approved the 2015 budget and made it publicly available, so it was familiar information. Secondly, this particular dataset allowed Schoonover’s team to demonstrate how existing information inherently remained the same, but could be re-categorized and accessed in a much better way.
“I wanted to be able to say, ‘See, it’s the same budget as our budget book. Nothing different. We’re just displaying it differently,’” says the IT pro.
Showtime: Presenting the Pilot
After loading in the first dataset, Schoonover showed it to City Manager Jim Colson, and his response boded well for future stakeholder reviews.
“He called it an awesome format. I think his quote was, ‘I’ve never seen the budget displayed this way. I really like it.’ So that was the first green light,” recalls Schoonover.
From there, the team moved on to their second internal layer, the City of Topeka department directors. Once again, the pilot portal accomplished its mission, which is to say it helped familiarize the directors with the new format, helped them understand how it works, and help them and see its value.
Schoonover then took the pilot to Topeka’s city council, which she anticipated would be one of their toughest audiences — but instead turned out to be one of their easiest.
During the presentation, Schoonover made sure to showcase how Topeka’s Open Budget solution automatically calculated department or program budgets funded from multiple sources, so council members would no longer have to do it manually.
“We were able to show them that rather than somebody having to go through and do all of the adding, the portal did it for them,” reports Schoonover. “And if they wanted to drill down and say, ‘Okay, how much are we spending on Program X,’ they could get all the way down to the smallest program level.”
Courting the Media
The council liked the portal as well, but Schoonover knew more key stakeholders awaited: Topeka’s citizens and media outlets. So for this stage, Schoonover decided to get creative — and personal.
“First, our internal communications team created a really cool portal training video that showed how you’re able to drill down to budget allocations at the smallest level,” she explains. She then posted the video everywhere she could, from the city’s YouTube page to its Facebook and Twitter feeds.
And instead of announcing the upcoming open budget portal via the typical press conference or news release, Schoonover invited local TV and radio journalists into her office for a pilot show and tell.
This allowed her to demonstrate how the portal could help the media with a shared mission: report budget data to the public in understandable ways. She also invited council members and economic groups to the demo session to show how portal data could eventually help everyone partner up for joint economic development projects.
The show and tell worked. “Everybody loved it,” reports Schoonover. “That same day, and the next day, local media coverage expressed how cool it was. And the economic development agencies started asking how we could start working together.”
Ready for Expansion
Since the initial budget portal launched, Schoonover’s team has been busy building the next phase, Topeka’s wider open data portal.
Thanks to the proof-of-concept approach, however, it’s been an expansion process that’s mostly technical, instead of the common combination of portal building and stakeholder convincing.
“So far I honestly have to say, I have not received any negative feedback, which is kind of unusual,” reports Schoonover. “Not from the council, not from internal departments, not from news blogs. Everybody really liked the easy format. And that says a lot because around here in the Midwest, people can be pretty hard to please.”