This is a guest post to the Wellesley Institute by Alex Mazer. Alex is a co-founder of Better Budget T.O., an advisor on strategy, regulation, and stakeholder management, and a former Director of Policy to the Ontario Minister of Finance.
One of the many items overshadowed by last week’s city council debate about the Scarborough subway were changes to the 2014 budget process. Last January, council asked for a review to make the budget process “more transparent for councillors and the public” (see the original motion here).
So what did council change? The approved Staff Report contains three main changes:
- It adds a little over two weeks to the budget process relative to last year. Council approval of the budget is now being targeted for the end, rather than the middle, of January.
- Standing committees will conduct a review of service levels and activities within each division in September 2013. Recommendations from this review will be referred “for consideration” into the 2014 budget process.
- Staff will hold a series of “drop-in sessions” following the launch of the proposed budget, to allow councillors to ask questions of the staff from each program or agency about their proposed budgets.
It would be hard to imagine a less ambitious set of changes. Let’s consider what a broader, more imaginative review could have explored.
- Clarity – Budget briefing materials and information available online could be changed to make them clearer and easier to understand. Just because information is available doesn’t mean people can easily understand it. Sometimes a large volume of information can obscure more than it reveals because it’s hard to tell what matters and what doesn’t. City hall and business reporter John Lorinc has called Toronto’s budget documents “the most impenetrable financial reports I’ve ever had the pleasure of decoding.” While the staff report does commit to “reviewing opportunities to improve budget materials with the focus on ensuring that materials are provided in a clearer manner and are easier to understand,” there are no specifics attached to this commitment.
- Models from other cities – Other cities across Canada and around the world are changing their budget processes to increase accessibility and community engagement. Calgary’s Our City, Our Budget, Our Future process is but one exciting example of a concerted effort on this front. Toronto is among the most global of cities worldwide, so drawing on lessons from elsewhere should be a regular practice in the pursuit of better government.
- Technology – Technology can be used to enhance the budget process by (a) providing more and better quality information that could be posted on the city’s Open Data portal (the information there is extensive but there is lots of room for improvement to make it more useful); (b) engaging the broader community (including tech, communications, and design specialists) to find compelling ways to present budget information, using the data that is currently available; (c) using online tools to facilitate community engagement for those Torontonians who cannot make deputations; and, (d) engaging with initiatives such as OpenSpending (a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation), which just this last weekend coordinated events around the world, including in Toronto, to map where cities spend public dollars.
- Accessibility – A concerted, serious effort to make engagement more convenient and accessible for community organizations and everyday citizens. Different forms of engagement, timing of meetings (both different times of the day and times of the year), and locations of consultations would all be options worth examining in the spirit of opening up city hall.
- Vision – Perhaps most importantly, how can we reimagine the city budget in a broader way? What if, for example, we were to think of the budget as a strategy or vision for the city, as well as a way to make sure the numbers add up? What if we were to rethink how we communicate the budget, so that it is more of a coherent narrative rather than a series of relatively technical and somewhat disjointed charts, graphs, and bullet points
As arguably the most significant policy document the city produces, there is untapped potential for the budget to be more ambitious in its reach.
One striking thing about the review is how much of council appears to be satisfied with the status quo. About half of council was consulted as part of the review that led to these changes. Of those council members, the report says that roughly three quarters believe that the current process is sufficiently transparent. A slight majority of these councillors also felt that current opportunities for community engagement on the budget process were “more than sufficient.” We doubt Torontonians – particularly those who have tried to engage with the process – would agree. The fact that this was an item at council means that at least some councillors are engaged and care about continuous improvement of the process. We hope to build on this work, and explore the real potential for a city-building budget process at Better Budget Day on October 19, 2013, an event (brought to you by the Wellesley Institute and Better Budget T.O.) that will bring together a diverse range of constituencies to build momentum and develop solutions in order to improve how Toronto spends public dollars.
The service level and activity reviews by division, slated to take place in September, will also provide an opportunity to broaden the debate around the budget and inject a new set of facts. It would be worthwhile for civic organizations, journalists, community groups and other city hall watchers to pay close attention to these hearings to see what new avenues of engagement and discussion they produce.
The bigger opportunity – and one of the main goals of Better Budget Day – is to inject some ideas for change into the 2014 election process. With fiscal issues almost certain to be front and centre once again in the upcoming election, it makes sense to take a close look at not only how much money gets spent where, and where revenue gets raised, but also the way these decisions get made. The public is hungry for better government and for a more ambitious, positive vision for the city. The budget process is a great place to start.