The People’s Budget

The People’s Budget is an interactive, mobile-friendly website that demystifies local spending by asking residents to play "mayor for a day" by balancing their city budget. Users learn more about how government works and how it spends money before deciding for themselves how to divide discretionary funds. The answers to these questions are synthesized and reported back to the community and city leaders to help get limited tax dollars to the programs that need them the most.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the City of New Orleans has changed drastically. Developers and city government have worked to rebuild and rethink not just our city’s infrastructure, but our priorities as a tourist destination, oil and gas hub, and most importantly, a home to return to for 384,000 diverse residents. New Orleanians have struggled to be a part of these decisions, and without a formalized citizen participation plan or a structure for input into our city budget, residents lack any real opportunity to have a voice in the way their city works.

The Committee for a Better New Orleans, a 51-year-old non-profit organization and civic engagement advocate has found a way to put a finger directly to the pulse of resident needs and priorities in the community with the People's Budget, an interactive site that lets everyone in New Orleans play “Mayor for a Day” by balancing the city budget. With an average play time of 10 minutes, the People's Budget makes it easy for everyone to participate in what was previously an opaque, complex process: spending tax dollars.

Though valuable as an input tool, the People's Budget also offers what has long been lacking in the discussion of city spending: financial education. In a city where 71% of residents have a subprime credit score and 13% of residents are unbanked, CBNO feels it is crucial to ensure our neighbors are given an equitable opportunity for financial literacy. Informed input is meaningful input; anything less is denying our neighbors a real seat at the table. Residents must balance the budget, choosing how to spend tax dollars based on previous year spending and personal priorities. Players are given the opportunity to learn more about how departments work and how they spend their money, as well as to give additional feedback on specifically how they’d like funds to be spent. What happens if you give a department less funding? What could they do with more?

The answers to these questions are synthesized and reported back to the community and our city leaders throughout the fiscal year. In the game’s initial year, residents in New Orleans pointed to a 35% increase in spending to improve city infrastructure, additional resources for mental health care, and smarter spending to reform our juvenile justice system.

In its first year, the People's Budget captured the voices of over 700 New Orleanians, 77% of whom had never participated in the city budget process before. For some of these new voices, the Spanish-language version of the People's Budget was their first time engaging in local politics on any level. Bringing fresh perspectives into the conversation about the way our communities work and where our tax dollars flow is ground-breaking in a Southern U.S. city with a history of deeply entrenched disenfranchisement, particularly in of communities of color.

In New Orleans, the lack of input into the budget was not just based on the lack of financial education of our residents. In many cities, it is an issue of the lack of political will. Balancing public budgets is not easy. Cities (or school boards, or national level budgets, or any public budget) are limited by tax code, but that does not stop the needs of residents from growing. Knowing how to balance this endless need with very finite tax dollars is not easy; for many elected officials, it is an exercise in frustration. We want to help those limited dollars go to the places where they’re needed the most.

The data created by the People's Budget is clean, usable, and novel. Never before have our city leaders had such a quantifiable look at the needs of residents across the city in a way that translates directly to the language of our city budget. Likewise, we’ve empowered our local community leaders and advocates by opening this data to everyone. By looking at the game’s quick poll questions or crowd-sourced budget report, now our neighbors can sit at the table with access to the same data as our elected officials.

The People's Budget was developed to meet a need in the New Orleans community, but has created a solution that can be used worldwide. Since its launch, CBNO has partnered with two U.S. cities and hopes to scale into two countries in Latin America in 2019. Scaling the site creates an exciting opportunity to learn about the priorities of communities around the world and to improve the way local governments respond to the needs of their residents. Meaningful resident input and genuine government response are crucial to the recovery of New Orleans, but they are every bit as necessary and in every way as powerful to all of the cities of the world.

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Year: 2015
Organisation Type: Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)

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