Collaboration in Civic Spheres

L.A.’s Online Tool For Budget Advice: Pros And Cons

by February 22nd, 2010

Los Angeles is using a tailored online tool called “L.A. Budget Challenge” to elicit taxpayer input on resolving the city’s daunting fiscal problems. Pete Peterson, Executive Director of Common Sense California, praises the outreach effort but also suggests some improvements. On the upside, Peterson likes that the innovative public engagement process will result in real consideration of the results, which will be distributed at public meetings next month. He also reports the survey instrument is informative, engaging and quick – a combined civics lesson and budget calculator which draws the user into tough choices on where to cut spending and exactly how to raise revenues.

Armed with the “for/against” information and haunted by the Budget Meter, I really got the sense that I was making trade-off decisions at least at a rudimentary level.

Peterson’s criticisms center on what he and other observers have perceived as some degree of baked-in policy bias related to an ongoing emphasis by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the importance of public-private partnerships (P3s) as a cost-saving tool. It is impossible to balance the budget using the city-provided online engagement tool, Peterson and others note, without saying “yes” to P3 deals that would offload to private sector players some ownership and management responsibilities for the city’s parking meters and parking structures.

The Mayor’s office subsequently responded, Peterson reports, that in fact, not every possible way of balancing the budget was factored into the exercise. While some parameters have to be drawn, more leeway seems better than less. Choices should not be forced.

One other concern, writes Peterson, is that the phrasing of the questions on budget cuts in specific departments may lead many respondents to choose the middle, or “Goldilocks” option in many instances, but more due to a generalized desire to be moderate than for any specific reasons of public policy.

The question of degree is timely. At the state level, notes Washington Post columnist David Broder, the nation’s governors may through the new decade be forced to address their own pressing budget challenges with much tougher steps than some trims here and there, plus layoffs and furloughs. Agencies may have to be consolidated, public assets sold off, and more, his sources relate. Unless consensus can be built around tax hikes, something that in this economic climate will require an extraordinary degree of collaboration between elected officials and the public.

Peterson notes in closing that among city goverments, Los Angeles is not alone in using online tools to attract a more precise type of public input on difficult budget choices. But he concludes:

The real “challenge” for all these projects will be to ensure participation is not biased or wasted.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Would you like to see your city, county or state government do something similar to the “Los Angeles Budget Challenge,” online? Is this way of encouraging public input on hard budget choices better or worse than the usual public hearings on the topic? And why?

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