Public Assets Institute > Library > Projects > Public Budgeting Project

Public Budgeting Project

Openness in government is a hallmark of democracy. Typically, people talk about openness as a way to hold public officials accountable. But openness serves another purpose, as well: It helps to draw on all of our resources — including the ideas and skills of the citizens — to solve problems and do the work of government. Officials aren’t supposed to have all of the answers, but they should be able to find the best answers. By conducting the public’s business in public, decision-makers have the best chance of tapping all the knowledge and experience available.

The Public Assets Institute wants to expand participation in the democratic process by providing citizens with tools and information that will help them to understand how their taxes and other public assets are being used. Information about where public money comes from and where it goes needs to be publicly accessible. People also need to know who makes the decisions about how money is raised and spent and what they can do to influence those decisions.

One Vermont — a broad-based coalition that supports adequate funding for state services — has made it a priority to bring greater transparency to the Vermont budget process. As a member of One Vermont, the Public Assets Institute has committed itself to helping develop a public budgeting project. We envision three major components:

Education — helping citizens understand the budget process and how they can get involved;
Data Collection and Presentation — compiling, maintaining, and presenting basic fiscal data in a format that allows both neophytes and veterans of the budget process to do their own research;
Process Reform — advocating for changes in policies and procedure, in both the Legislature and the executive branch, that will help make the budget process more comprehensible and accessible to average citizens.

For government to be open, people must be able for find information easily and have it presented in a way that makes it easy to grasp. Information also has to be timely. The education part of the Public Budgeting Project is designed to make basic budget and tax information readily accessible and understandable, even to those who are new to the workings of state government. We will do this through development of a Citizen’s Guide to the State Budget.

Data Collection and Presentation
Information is sometimes presented selectively or prepackaged so that it tells a particular story. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself; we all have stories we want to tell. But in order to make up their own minds, people need to hear all the stories — the interpretations of the information — and also have easy access to the original data from which those interpretations are derived. The Public Assets Institute will work to create a repository for this prepackaged information — reports, studies, and documents that represent a variety of viewpoints, including our own research and reports.

In addition, we want to provide people with tools that will enable them to do their own research and answer questions of interest to them. We would like to create a resource for journalists, legislators, business leaders, and others with a professional interest in the data. But we also want to make it available to average citizens who have their own questions, like how much their state representative is being paid or who sells the most fuel oil to the state of Vermont.

Process Reform
Reforming budget procedures goes hand in hand with making the process more comprehensible. In the early 1990s, the governor’s office and the Legislature finally agreed to begin the budget process with an agreed-on estimate of taxes and other revenues the state was likely to collect in the coming year. That seems like common sense — and it is — but before that time, the House, the Senate, and the administration each worked from its own estimate. There are other procedures and practices that could make the budget process easier to follow if they were standardized or applied uniformly. For example, what do we mean when we talk about “level funding”? Is it exactly the same amount of money or the money needed to provide the same level of services? The term is used sometimes to mean the former and sometimes the latter. As part of the Public Budgeting Project, the Public Assets Institute and the other One Vermont members will work with both the Legislature and the executive branch to promote reforms to rationalize and bring more light to the budget process.

For more information about the Public Budgeting Project contact Jack Hoffman.


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To Follow the Money, Public Needs Better Reporting on Federal and Special Funds
May 10, 2008