Transparency in government is paramount if that government is really going to be of the People, by the People and for the People. I have been studying the annual budget proposed by Cincinnati’s City Manager. The budget draft is made available online and I assume a hard copy could at least be picked up at city hall by anyone. Perhaps the manager’s office or the clerk of council would also mail it if requested. That said, if you take a look at the proposed budget (capital or general fund) I don’t think a strong argument can be made that it is fully transparent.
Accessibility has to be a part of transparency. The budget certainly would be confusing to most people, not to mention it is 533 pages long. Furthermore, often you cannot have a full understanding of a particular revenue or expense item without deeper historical or contextual knowledge and sometimes even then more explanation not available in the document is needed. Of course it makes sense that any budget is going to be most understood by those who wrote it and administer it. And it is okay if a budget requires those people to explain portions of it to others. But here is the trouble in having the city’s budget be as inaccessible as it is: we as Cincinnatians don’t, nor should we just trust the authors of the budget.
The inaccessibility of the budget allows room for certain items of spending and revenue to be hidden from public eye. Sure, the dollar amount may be noted directly or through extraction, but that doesn’t mean the explanation or label in the budget fully explains what it is. It is true that residents do not get involved in our local government anywhere remotely as close as they should be. But some of that has to be due to the fact that government is often seen as confusing, inaccessible, untrustworthy and generally not a part of daily life. However, I’ll bet that if Cincinnatians could study a version of the budget that was transparent, many Cincinnatians would have significant concerns and frustrations. And people would have solutions to offer as well.
So how can the budget be more accessible? There are public hearings which do serve as a positive place for Residents to voice opinions. And at these gatherings, the city manager walks through an often very dry presentation of the budget draft. One step would be to take some questions from Residents to be posed to the city manager and then have the city manager give them a response. The manager could have a meeting with a couple representatives from every community council. City council could solicit specific responses from every community council regarding the budget. The number of pages in the document could be reduced through eliminating blank pages, redundancy, etc. Each department could have a representative present at the manager’s meeting with community councils. Paper copies of the budget could be made available at all recreation centers, libraries, parks and public schools along with the listing of public hearings. Community council leaders could attend a general gathering to better learn the layout of the budget and then share this knowledge with those in their neighborhood. The budget could be laid out in a way that would be more quickly understood by the average person.
In short, the city’s budget is not very accessible. There is good reason to believe this is intentional so as to keep Residents from seeing “too much,” asking “too many” questions, and challenging “too much”.
The budget should be put together in order to encourage and empower Resident leadership. I wonder how people would feel if they lived in a city where they truly felt they had a lead role in the city’s budget?