ANALYSIS: Budge the Budget—DemocracySTORM returns!

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
February 10th, 2013

Back over Christmas, I eagerly unwrapped the gift of enormously diverse input given by respondents to December’s DemocracySTORM survey. Now we’re in the second, more exciting phase of the storm—we’re asking you to vote on your favourite Budge the Budget ideas.

You need not have participated to jump in right now and vote, so please join the chorus, either by subscribing to the Rossland Telegraph newsletter, or by following this link.

Of 919 people to whom we sent the survey, 93 added their thoughts and 68 people actively “opted out”—typically noting that it was because they do not live in Rossland or that they had two emails in the list.

In separate articles you can read people’s answers to the questions: 1) What should Rossland spend MORE money on? 2) What should Rossland spend LESS money on? 3) And what other key points should council consider before passing the budget?

But here we address the main concerns people raised about our approach.

We’re using THOUGHTstream software designed by Rosslander Jim Firstbrook as an efficient tool to ask groups of people open-ended questions and then help the group identify priorities.

Firstbrook’s THOUGHTstream business has focused primarily on school districts, allowing them to collect and interpret public input on education issues more efficiently and meaningfully than through traditional approaches, such as survey tools.

DemocracySTORM is the name we’ve given to using their approach to engage municipal citizens in civic decisions. Firstbrook has kindly provided the software for free.

Concern: why not a regular survey instead?

Some people have asked, why not just run a simple survey, such as with SurveyMonkey.com, instead of heading into the unknown of open-ended questions in this “storm”?

(THOUGHTstream addresses this question very well here.)

Surveys are great for very specific questions, the sort of question to which people can reply ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or with a 1-10 scale, or by ranking, or with a choice between a handful of options.

But in the case of our complex budget, especially as a first, exploratory foray into public opinion on the matter, it seemed much more appropriate to allow the survey questions to self-organize from the grassroots, from people’s responses to open-ended, value-free questions.

As ideas are refined through this DemocracySTORM, it’s possible we might return to specific issues at a later date using a traditional survey tool.

Concern: the budget is complex

“Opinions are often too specific to deal with all the variations,” one participant wrote. Another wrote, “Opinions don’t necessarily reflect what is best for the whole community – Rossland should not be looked at as a town of special interest people or groups.”

One respondent wrote, “Opinions expressed as generalities are rather meaningless as they don’t reflect understanding of the total budget process and its complexity.”

Yes, the budget is complex, no argument there, but public opinion is (or should be) at the root of the decision-making process, since the budget should reflect community needs and desires. That’s what DemocracySTORM is all about.

This Storm, for example, allowed participants to be as specific or general about their budget idea as they wished. All we do is lump similar responses together and send it back out for a vote.

I hope enough people vote to make it clear which ideas are more central, and which lie at the fringe of public opinion.

Concern: ignorance

“I don’t know nearly enough to comment on the budget,” one participant wrote. “I admit to not really paying much attention to budget discussions,” wrote another.

“How do we know what is reasonable without a reasonable basis for comparison?” wrote someone else, and another wrote: “We need comparable stats for similar size cities to understand ideal spending.”

Understanding the budget better does require effort—and that means time that many people cannot afford. Better data would be good too, but common sense can make up for a lack of comparables to Rossland BC.

Nevertheless, most citizens have at least some understanding of some of the work the city does with the taxes they pay. Ideally, every resident would have a good understanding of the budget’s broad strokes, but this is unlikely to ever be the case.

This DemocracySTORM is one means to advance the community’s awareness of the budget. It also allows residents to share ideas and so spark new ones.

Concern: nefarious ulterior motives

“Is there a conflict of interest reporting data then promoting [THOUGHTstream] sales?” asked one respondent. “Maybe THOUGHTstream is a great idea for a community to solidify priorities, but having it brought (by Andrew?) in the conclusion as an addition to the municipal cost, it makes the exercise seem somehow less authentic.”

“It is odd, a survey focused on examining revenues and expenses then advocates the spending of more money [on THOUGHTstream],” wrote another.

These comments likely refer to an opinion I raised that the city should spend money on gathering public input, for example through THOUGHTstream. Whether the city chooses to use one kind of software and facilitator or another matters less to me than the basic importance of sincerely gathering public input.

Concern: foreign influence

“I don’t live in Rossland, this is a flawed survey,” wrote one participant. Indeed, some of our subscribers do not live in Rossland, and the main reason people gave for “opting out” was because they do not live in Rossland.

There are at least two ways, then, to address this concern. On the one hand, it seems that people who don’t live in Rossland probably chose to not participate or to opt out. This can be confirmed from the list of participants, most of whom released their full names. (For privacy, we will not disclose the ideas’ authors.)

On the other hand, even people who do not live in Rossland may know the town well enough to offer useful suggestions. For example, former CAO André Carrel lives far away now, but offered a couple ideas.

The real proof for how well an idea resonates, however, is whether it gets votes right now. So thank you, past and future participants in this DemocracySTORM, we look forward to your two cents.

Follow this link to participate directly, or sign up for a Rossland Telegraph subscription and we’ll make sure you’re on the voter list.

Participants will receive an email and a link to guide them through a simple vote in which they assign stars to their favourite ideas. After the polls close on Sunday, Feb. 24, we’ll count the votes and let you know.

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