Why would you want the budget of your city to be open?
What does the community really want? Do all those numbers and terms really even mean anything to the average citizen?
Through the Open Budget initiative, we gave three Ukrainian cities the chance to experiment with better ways to inform their citizens about municipal budgets and opportunities to participate in local-level budgeting decisions.
The three partner municipalities - Ivano-Frankivsk, Zhytomyr and Ternopil - each have sections on their websites with relevant data, explanatory notes, and graphs to illustrate the year’s fiscal planning.
But even with this information readily available for citizens and journalists to explore, there remains room to make the budgets more user-friendly, comprehensible, and searchable.
Our thinking went beyond just replicating an existing format; we wanted to get input from those most affected by the budgets: the community. So for this exercise, we approached three main groups: representatives of local budgeting departments, civic activists, and local journalists.
We embarked on an experiment not unlike something UNDP has used in the region before: an “itch workshop” - based on the notion that getting to the heart of the community’s concerns ‘scratches an itch’.
In this case, the task was just a bit more complicated than usual.
The idea was to introduce the audience to overall budgeting principles (with the help of local fiscal specialists), promote a basic understanding of data interpretation, and go through a practical design thinking exercise.
In this final step, each of the three groups could design their own vision of an open budget electronic tool.
While it was unfortunate that the design thinking and prototyping sessions had to be rushed, the participants managed to come up with terrific ideas – some of which (in Ukrainian) were even implemented at the event itself.
While the prototypes, designs, and approaches had some divergent and audience-specific features, together they provide a glimpse into the communities’ real data needs and offer principles to guide similar work in the future:
There is an urgent need to raise awareness of the very idea of open data and its usefulness for local communities throughout Ukraine.
Ties between budgeting authorities, council members, journalists, and activists need to be nurtured. There was initial skepticism amongst the different groups but trust emerged and deepened on the second day.
The more, the merrier: While this exercise focused on three main groups, the most successful discussions also included local business-people and municipal council members. Future initiatives would do well to include university professors and students as well.
Two days is just not enough! A two-day programme felt insufficient for going in-depth and producing detailed prototypes. That being said, the sessions kept up a good pace and, in most cases, a tired-but-happy audience emerged from the room.
There is a high demand for similar sessions all over Ukraine, and requests are rolling in from other potential partner municipalities.
The overall training seems to have tested well and has been instrumental in getting the community’s vision for budget visualization and citizen participation.
So we are off on an even more interesting voyage: building the live tools and filling them up with budget data.
We will definitely keep you posted on how that goes, but for now we’re off to a promising start!
PS: The project’s initial results and challenges were discussed at the Open Government Partnership’s Europe Regional Meeting this year in Dublin.This provided an awesome opportunity to test drive new ideas and learn from peer organizations dealing with similar issues.
But that discussion is worth another post in itself. Stay tuned…