Five years of Citizen Budget: an impact assessment

Christian Medina-Ramirez

19 Apr 2018, 3:30 p.m.
Auditorium 1

OpenNorth’s online Citizen Budget is an interactive online budget consultation tool that has been implemented in over 90 municipalities across the United States, Canada and France for the past five years. Citizen Budget’s popularity relies on the simplicity of its user interface, no-nonsense implementation and the relative low costs that cities incur by adopting this consultative budgeting tool. The tool strikes a balance between informing the public of budgetary processes, without overwhelming city staff and the general public with overly elaborate schemes or overly technical jargon.

Five years after launch, and with over 120 Citizen Budgets implemented across North America, Open North have undertaken research on the impact of the tool in different cities. Through both an overall quantitative study of the data gathered in the past five years and a qualitative case-study approach on notorious municipalities, they share the impact of this relatively lightweight approach to consultations in budgeting.

Methodology has focused on impact metrics of both citizen engagement and how elected officials and government worker attitudes shift before and after implementation of Citizen Budget, especially in the context of openness and participatory democracy. A survey of over five years of public records and meetings, and internal exit interviews/debriefs blinds the study, making for more reliable conclusions. The findings and analysis build on research undertaken by Civic Technology organisations such as the Knight Foundation and mySociety, and on work done by Canadian academics on e-governance and e-democracy.

Results thus far show that despite relatively low numbers of input compared to the overall population, engaging in this light exercise of participatory democracy improves the quantity and quality of participation in municipal affairs. In particular, a low input approach proves most beneficial for small communities, which might not have the resources to afford costly or broad exercises to engage denizens of their respective community. Finally, Citizen Budget is being adopted beyond the five-year cycle usual in Civic Tech tools by municipalities, pointing to possible institutionalisation of online consultative processes.