Balancing Act is an easy and engaging way for residents to learn about public budgets and the choices public officials face in the budgeting process. It allows participants to try allocating funds— expressing their priorities and preferences — but also requires them to balance spending and revenue.
Governing is challenging, and in an era when citizen mistrust is common and budgets are increasingly strained, that challenge is only growing. Furthermore, technology is changing the way people interact with institutions—they expect information on demand, and if they want to share their opinion they want to do so online immediately and not be required to go to a meeting.
When it comes to the budget, Balancing Act provides an effective, efficient way for officials to meet public expectations, explain tough tradeoffs and financial decisions, channel citizen complaints, and build trust in government.
Every situation is unique, but here are a few scenarios:
Projected shortfall: When the forecast is gloomy or there is a structural deficit requiring some hard choices, governments have used Balancing Act to lay out the facts and ask residents to help make the difficult decisions—whether making cuts or increasing taxes—needed to balance the budget. While the solutions may not make everyone happy, at least everyone has the opportunity to participate in deciding what to do.
Projected surplus: If a new retail center increases sales tax collections or a booming economy boosts home values, a government may find itself deciding how to allocate new resources to better serve current and future residents. Or, it may form the basis for a decision to cut taxes.
Pressing needs: Balancing Act is usually based on the proposed budget. Because Balancing Act's layered information structure makes it possible to show real-time impacts, public officials can make a strong but respectful case to residents about important items and how they need to fit into the budget. If residents don’t care much about storm water, for example, they will need to cut that item while the simulation warns them of the possible consequences of ignoring basic services.
Policy goals: Sometimes certain policy goals, such as eliminating or limiting a revenue source, have popular appeal, but the public may not understand the consequences. Balancing Act can be used to simulate the impact—and the result on the budget—of policy options so that the public can have a fuller understanding of consequences.
Good government: While every organization has its challenges, government is often a cost-effective way to provide vital services to everyone. Using Balancing Act when there is not a crisis is simply good, responsive governance. Plus, by building trust during the good times, public officials have a greater ability to solve problems during the bad times.
Transparency is a hot topic among governments and the Internet makes it possible to share vast amounts of financial information. Sometimes this information is presented in interactive, visually appealing apps, and at other times through large PDFs or spreadsheets. While Balancing Act’s straightforward interface helps with transparency, its major purpose is to facilitate citizen engagement and participation in the budget.
The International Budget Partnership recognizes three ideal characteristics for public budgets: oversight, transparency and participation. Of these, participation is the most lacking. Balancing Act aims to change that. For more, read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog "Bringing Understanding and Engagement to Public Budgets."
Balancing Act was designed to meet the public engagement needs of governments of all types: municipalities, school districts, counties, departments, states and even nations.
Balancing Act can be used anywhere in the world. We currently offer versions in English, Spanish and French, but other languages can be setup as requested. Balancing Act can be configured to work with any currency.
Yes. Nonprofits, advocacy organizations, foundations and others can use the app either for internal use (such as facilitating board discussions about a budget) or to educate and get feedback from the public on an entire budget or issue.
No. One of the most effective uses of Balancing Act is when public officials use it in presentations or town hall meetings. This hybrid of high-tech and high-touch is a powerful way of leveraging the power of the internet with the personal connection of face-to-face meetings. We highly recommend this approach.
The Balancing Act interface is designed with two purposes in mind. First, it succinctly provides users information for understanding and informed input on the budget. Second, it creates a space for public officials to give detail and context for decision-making, including consequences of choices. The interface has four layers:
Category: the overall budget category, such as "police" or "parks," including the proposed budget amount. (required)
Subcategory: a program name or other identifiable component of a category, such as "patrol" or "maintenance," including the proposed budget amount. (required)
More info: a short description of a subcategory that appears when the blue info icon is clicked. (optional)
Yes. Each subcategory has an option to add an "alert," such as "State law prohibits increasing sales tax." Alerts can be configured to appear when an item is increased, decreased or changed. (optional)
If you have the information above at hand, it will take 2-3 hours to enter it into the client management area. At that point, you can create a non-public "preview" for sharing with others for review. Once you are ready, simply click "publish" and your simulation will be on the web with a unique URL.
Yes. We want you to succeed and are here to help. The Pro version comes with telephone and screen sharing support to help you get started and to offer tips. This is all that most entities need. If you have custom needs we make sure you have the support and expertise required.
No. One of the most common uses of Balancing Act is to engage the public in the tough choices involved in a projected deficit. On the other hand, Balancing Act is also used to gather priorities for projected surpluses or new monies, including tax cuts.
The Client Management page automatically generates a visual graphic that aggregates all user responses. In addition, a spreadsheet can be downloaded that has record-level detail on each user’s submission.
The Taxpayer Receipt is a companion tool to the Balancing Act simulation that generates a "receipt" for residents’ taxes. It asks a few simple questions that help estimate a resident's taxes and then shows an itemized receipt based on the data entered into the Balancing Act budget simulation. At the bottom of the "receipt" the user is asked if these are the right priorities and is then directed to the main budget simulation page. The Taxpayer Receipt is a effective way to pique users' interest, give them personally relevant information, and invite them to learn about the larger budget issues. Check out Colorado's version of the Taxpayer Receipt for an example.