Over at Human Transit, public transportation planner Jarrett Walker points to yet another online budget puzzle, this one from Portland, OR and still ongoing: portland: balance the budget yourself

Portland’s Tri-Met faces another horrible funding shortfall this year, but they’ve come up with a good survey tool to engage the public in their decisions about what services to cut. It’s one of those “balance the budget yourself” tools that’s becoming increasingly necessary to bring voters into contact with reality about government budgets.

Here’s a screenshot showing the progress bar under the combination of revenue increases and spending cuts that yield the maximum impact.

TriMet: Challenges & Choices: Tell us what you think

In the comments, readers point out a number of issues with this setup:

  • Options don’t appear to cover the full spectrum of solutions.
  • Appears to only include options that are generally within the scope of convener’s institutional authority.
  • Options appear to be biased.
  • Financial impact calculations seem questionable.
  • Low combined impact volume means some “options” aren’t really that optional.

Whether these concerns are justified or not, at this point the damage is already done: the perceived shortcomings put this public participation exercise in a pretty bad spot right from the get-go.

Here’s the comment I left:

Interesting, anyone know what kind of software they’re using or whether this was built in-house?

There are two things I look at when I come across online budget tools like this one:

1) What’s the maximum impact of all options combined as a percentage of the deficit? In this case, the deficit is $17m, but only $25.7m (151%) in deficit reduction measures are offered. It’s clear right there that there probably isn’t a lot of flexibility for participants in choosing their path to solving the deficit.

2) Are there any options that are impossible to avoid? In this case, the budget deficit cannot be resolved unless fares are increased. As long as a participants [sic] chooses “no fare increase” she won’t be able to solve the puzzle. Failure to make this more transparent to the participant can be a simple oversight or, worse, an effort to push a hidden agenda.

Obviously, the options shouldn’t be biased (as much as that’s possible). At the very least, TriMet should provide information as to how the various options were selected and share the assumptions behind their financial impact calculations.

There are better ways to do this, though it certainly isn’t the first project to struggle.