In the midst of this seemingly endless campaign season, two nonprofits have partnered to produce an online budget simulation tool whose goal is the polar opposite of sound-bite politics: an engaged and informed citizenry. The “Federal Balancing Act” website went live March 17 and is billed as a “fun and easy way for residents to learn about public budgets and the choices their elected officials face in the budgeting process.” It allows participants to try allocating funds—expressing their priorities and preferences— but also requires them to balance spending and revenue.
Perhaps best described as an “interactive infographic,” the tool simplifies the federal budget into major categories of revenues and expenditures. Users can test the effect of policy changes on the fly—raise this tax, eliminate that program, reduce that entitlement benefit, tweak that subsidy. Then, submit the input with the click of a button and get an instant readout on the current and long-term budget implications of your ideas.
Budget categories and data are “nested” so that the user can drill deeper into specific topic areas. The defense budget, for example, is organized around six major categories: operations and maintenance, personnel, hardware and major purchases, research and development, intelligence and support activities, and nuclear defense. A program user could, for example, evaluate the effect of eliminating all new major weapons purchases and find that the projected federal deficit could largely be eliminated. A more committed user could use the program’s links to official reports (e.g., “Defense Acquisition Trends, 2015” by the Center for Strategic & International Studies) to dig deeper and decide which specific weapons procurement programs to reduce or eliminate in order to generate a more realistic budget scenario.
This example points out the strength and inherent limits in this online budgeting tool: well-organized and simplified information that can quickly be manipulated through a calculator that does not take into account social or fairness costs or the political consequences of various budgetary decisions.
That’s where the public engagement goals of the larger project come into play. The tool was developed by Engaged Public, a Denver-based nonprofit whose mission is “smarter solutions for the common good.” This “group of strategists” partnered on the project with the Bipartisan Policy Center self-described as “the only Washington, DC-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship.” Engaged Public’s president, Chris Adams, a Stapleton resident, says the Balancing Act tool can be used as a generic simulation to enable people at all levels of government to “see how balancing a budget is a game of compromises.” His greater vision is that it becomes a way to promote “mutual accountability,” to “achieve realistic conversations” and ultimately to bring about a society where “we don’t punish our politicians for making hard choices.”
A version of the tool adapted to local government has already been used by the cities of Hartford, San Antonio and Virginia Beach. Adams says he is in contract negotiations with three or four Colorado cities to use the tool in their annual budgeting process. He believes that Colorado “can lead the way nationally” in a more rational budgeting and even political process. “Being Coloradans and this state having TABOR, it really pushes some responsibility to individual citizens to be logical about what government is spending money on and also how government raises money.” Adams said tools like this are important at all levels of government. The state of Colorado hosts its budget through Balancing Act, allowing citizens to easily see how they are being taxed and where their money is being spent. The tool even provides the user a “tax receipt” that spells out where an individual taxpayer’s payments to the state are spent.
Adams says the availability of the tool now is especially auspicious given the recent news that the federal deficit is projected to increase for the first time since 2009. He says deficits aren’t bad per se but large deficits over time are not sustainable. That’s why the front page of the online tool focuses on the long-term implications of current budgetary decisions. Once the user inputs budget choices, the calculator provides an estimate, in percentages, as to whether an annual deficit is sustainable over 25 years.
Adams said that in the first month, Balancing Act received 3,800 unique visitors who spent an average of 22 minutes on the website—an unusually long visit. He finds this encouraging and suggests that people use the tool to work through the budgetary implications of promises being made by the several presidential candidates in this tumultuous campaign season.
The tool can be accessed at www.federalbalancingact.com