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How to use data transparency tools for effective citizen engagement

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Read highlights from the ICMA webinar Utilizing Budget Transparency Strategies to Engage with Your Citizens with Questica and the City of Largo


According to the Government Finance Officers Association, “Transparency is a core value of governmental budgeting. Developing a transparent budget process will improve the government’s credibility and trust within the community.” The City of Largo, Florida has experience using community engagement to earn support for their public initiatives. In fact, community engagement was used to build Largo’s first strategic plan in 2017. From the start, Largo was interested in talking to the community about strategic investments and budget decisions, and discovered they could engage citizens and educate them on important projects by sharing budget information using data transparency tools. As a result of sharing the budget, Largo is increasing transparency and building trust at a time when citizens want to feel connected to their local government.


The benefits of data transparency


Since the City of Largo’s budget is a complex document, using data transparency technology acts as a bridge to link budget outcomes to financial information. After Largo began using data transparency tools, budget literacy improved among citizens because they had a better understanding of how the budget works. As a result, this knowledge promotes empathy in citizens and fosters an understanding of budgeting decisions; for instance, that Largo can’t lower taxes without taking away funding from community programs or services. By improving transparency, Largo demonstrates accountability and fiscal responsibility to the community.


Before adopting a data transparency strategy, Largo knew they needed better tools to communicate effectively with the community about budget decisions. They started using Questica OpenBook and Balancing Act to share budget information with the public. Questica OpenBook is a data visualization tool that enables Largo to transform complex budget data into interactive visuals, such as charts and maps. Balancing Act is a budget simulation tool that allows users to get a hands-on experiencing trying to balance Largo’s budget. Together, these tools provide a vital link between budget decisions and financial information, and enable users to provide feedback.


“What’s nice about these two tools is that we can link budget decisions in Balancing Act to the financial data in OpenBook. Our community members can click on a project or spending category, and jump over to OpenBook and learn more about it. It really is that interactive education and feedback piece we’ve been able to present digitally to engage different segments of our population,” says Meridy Semones, Performance & Budget Director at City of Largo.


Better engagement and communication during uncertain times


From previous engagement initiatives, Largo understood that in-person meetings are effective but time-consuming, and Zoom meetings are not great for getting community feedback. Citizens want to be involved with how programs are shaped at the development stage, so asking for feedback and ideas after the completed budgeting process is not the best approach. Largo determined that they could use digital tools like Questica OpenBook and Balancing Act to engage with the community early in the process. In addition, digital tools educate and inform by providing consistent information that users can access at their convenience. Citizens can learn about the issues of interest to them and provide feedback to help them make important decisions for the community.


When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their budgeting process, Largo knew it was important to engage with citizens on what was important during this crisis, such as the acute change in needs for the community and growing revenue challenges. Largo continued using their data transparency tools to successfully facilitate communications with their community and simplify big ideas with visuals. It was a strategic decision to maintain transparency and it was a useful validation point in the long run.


“People misremember things, or they just have different opinions of things. This way you have one version of the story to reference both in person or digitally in a meeting. It really does help with that consistency which of course lends itself to legitimacy. These tools have helped us form our decision-making,” says Semones.


The budget is the primary mechanism for local governments like Largo for setting priorities and supporting community initiatives. COVID-19 created a rare historical moment where the city budget is in the news daily and the work of local government at the top of the public’s consciousness. This makes it imperative for cities like Largo to communicate and engage with their citizens about budget decisions to continue earning their trust. Largo discovered that translating financial data into visuals gives the community consistent, easy to understand information. The budget simulation gives citizens a hands-on experience to understand the city’s investments and effectively learn the story of how Largo is responding to community needs.


4 Key takeaways for data transparency and citizen engagement


1.  Tie the city’s strategic plan to community engagement initiatives


A solid strategic plan guides city staff when times are certain and uncertain. A budget consisting primarily of spreadsheets full of numbers will only confuse citizens and fail to help them understand the city’s objectives. Framing transparency and community engagement initiatives around the strategic plan helps citizens understand how budget decisions are linked to financial information.


2.  Get the right tools for budget transparency


Partnering with software vendors that provide transparency and engagement solutions is essential to using the right tools to communicate complex financial information. Data transparency tools make it easy to align decision-making with the strategic plan and share the budget story with the community.


3. Rethink annually how the budget office engages with the community


Data transparency tools can help any organization provide consistent and easy to understand information about complex budgets to engage audiences of all types. However, it is a constant work-in-progress requiring the continuous development of content and engagement techniques to keep the community interested.


4.  Get started today


Data transparency is a form of citizen accountability.  When data transparency is paired with consistent public engagement, the result is the growth of trust within the community. It is the foundation for a compelling narrative that supports the city’s fact-based decision-making. For cities that haven’t started public engagement initiatives, data transparency tools can help in times of crisis and when budgeting is business-as-usual.


Questica OpenBook is a data visualization tool that transforms budget data into interactive visuals for increased government transparency. Using charts, graphs, infographics and maps, local governments can highlight spending decisions, projected costs, statistics and other complex information in easy to understand visuals. Questica OpenBook visualizations are also interactive, allowing citizens to search, view and drill-down through data for a deeper understanding of government spending decisions.


To see the City of Largo’s transparency initiatives in action, visit their OpenBook site.


To learn more about data transparency and Questica OpenBook, book a personalized demo with one of our budgeting and transparency experts.