Executive Director, Common Sense California. For more, visit the Fox & Hounds Daily Web site.

In another sign that California’s city governments are finding new and creative ways to engage their residents on excruciating budget decisions, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been attempting to drum up participation in the city’s, Los Angeles Budget Challenge Web site.

Utilizing the “Budget Challenge” software developed by Next Ten, the website is a facile survey-based platform that asks budget cut and revenue questions while it tracks the actual fiscal impact of your choices.

As Mayor Villaraigosa recently encouraged, “I believe community participation in the city’s budget process is essential.” But is the “community” really participating in this process? After going through the site myself, there are definite “Good”, “Bad”, and “Ugly” aspects to the initiative.

The Good:

First, the Mayor should be commended for offering what is a very informative and engaging budget tool for Angelenos. In a fairly short amount of time (I finished the survey in about 25 minutes) the participant goes through a process that is one part civics lesson and one part budget calculator, coming out the other side with a much better sense of the difficult decisions before the Mayor and City Council. The first page of the site has “Budget FAQ” and “Budget Hot Topic” sections with easy to link to answers on the size of the city budget, where revenues come from, and other important questions.

Once informed, the participant is asked to make budget cut decisions in a number of city departments – from “Fire Safety” to “Transportation/Infrastructure”. This is followed by several pages of revenue raising choices from contracting out parking services to increasing license fees. On each page, arguments “for” and “against” every choice are clearly and simply laid out, and a running “Budget Meter” updates the participant on how far she needs to go to close the $400MM deficit. Armed with the “for/against” information and haunted by the Budget Meter, I really got the sense that I was making trade-off decisions at least at a rudimentary level.

The Bad:

There is a “ghost in the machine” element to the site, and as has been uncovered by others, the ghost looks a lot like the Mayor. First, while participants learn that 51% (the largest budget element by far) of the unrestricted revenue budget of Los Angeles goes to police, there is no option in the survey to make a decision on the line item. It can’t make the firemen comfortable to see their budget evaluated on this public tool, but not the cops. One can argue whether police should be cut, but when one of the FAQ links on the homepage goes to “The Mayor’s commitment to expand the LAPD”, participants should quickly realize that not everything is on the table…because the Mayor says so.

Second, quickly picked up by the blogosphere, the online budget is impossible to balance without responding affirmatively to the question about Public Private Partnership (P3) for LA’s parking meters and structures. The Mayor has been outspoken in his support of this initiative, but to structure an online engagement in a way that forces participants to choose it is, obviously, not straight pool. Online public engagement blogger, Tim Bonnemann, got this evasive response from the Mayor’s Office when asked about the site manipulation: “this tool obviously does not include all possible ways to balance the City’s budget. That said, the Mayor does believe that a long-term concession agreement for the operation of 10 City parking structures is a viable means of generated significant one-time revenue for the City’s General Fund.”

The Ugly:

Related to these issues, there is an ugly, though understandable, “middle choice” or “Goldilocks bias” to the site. Throughout the survey, I found myself, when faced with “do nothing” and “cut everything” options, choosing the “just right” middle ground for no policy-based reason. Emir Kamenica at the University of Chicago recently researched and wrote about this “compromise effect”, noting: “This tendency to avoid extreme options has been credited with affecting decisions ranging from the demand for wine to voting and investing.” This is a foible for all survey-based public engagement instruments where options are pre-developed, and while it is sometimes necessary to focus discussions on policy issues like multi-billion dollar budgets, one still needs to be wary of these “context effects” on public participation.

Having said all this, the Mayor should be saluted for both offering this civic engagement tool, and having a plan (results from the survey will be compiled and distributed at public meetings next month) for incorporating the online “voice” of the public. Cash-strapped cities from Santa Cruz to Philadelphia are engaging their residents online, and the organization I work with, Common Sense California, has just launched a Public Engagement Grant Program to support these efforts around the state. The real “challenge” for all these projects will be to ensure participation is not biased nor wasted.

For more, visit the Fox & Hounds Daily Web site.