Digital Budget Wars

Should Santa Monica, Calif., build a new skateboard park? Or should money be spent on better policing for Main Street and the Ocean Park neighborhood? Rick, Jim and Marilyn think the skateboarders should get the nod. Michael wishes the city would just clean up the neighborhood. And Derek thinks Santa Monica should focus on housing for low- and moderate-income people who are in danger of being forced out by rising rents and property prices.

These Santa Monica residents may disagree on how the city should allocate its 1999-2000 budget, but they do have one thing in common: They voiced their opinions electronically. By filling out a simple form on Santa Monica's World Wide Web site (pen.ci.santa-monica.ca.us), they were able to make budget suggestions-and view others'-without having to write a letter, corner a City Council member or attend a council meeting in person.

The online form is a city service for "people who can't make it to [council] meetings or wait around for two or three hours to make a comment," said Judy Rambeau, a communications coordinator in Santa Monica's city manager's office. Although the Web suggestions take mere moments to fill out and submit, Rambeau said the city tells its department heads to consider them every bit as seriously as suggestions offered in writing or face-to-face.

Santa Monica resident Michael Grandcolas used the online budget suggestion form to request more police presence in his neighborhood. "I've gone down to council meetings and have waited [to speak], but I'll only do that about issues I feel super-passionate about. It can tie up the whole evening," he said. Grandcolas heard about the form from neighbors who also were interested in increased foot and bicycle patrols. "They said there's a place on the Web to post the suggestion, and it was much more convenient than writing a letter or calling."

Once a citizen types in a suggestion and clicks the Submit Form button, the text is automatically converted into a simple e-mail message, which is delivered to the city manager's office for routing. The mayor and the six other City Council members receive a copy, and a copy also goes to the finance department and the head of the city department that is most likely to handle the individual request.

So far, the types of requests fielded online aren't significantly different from citizen-initiated suggestions heard in person, over the phone or through the mail, Rambeau said. The city's Community and Cultural Services Department gets most of the citizen ideas, followed by the Police, Planning and Community Development, and Environmental and Public Works Management departments.

The budget suggestion form is available on the Santa Monica site for the first half of each year, but it is most relevant in January and February, when department heads are preparing to send their initial budget requests in to the finance director, Mike Dennis. Beginning in March, the budget is debated at various levels, including in a public forum, before being finalized at the end of June.

In 1999, the second year for the online form, the city received 112 budget suggestions from citizens: 54 over the Web and 58 from either letters or speakers at a public hearing held in January.

"We make an effort to ask department heads how these [online] suggestions were considered and why they did or did not reflect them in their budget requests," Dennis said.

High Tech vs. High Touch

The budget suggestion is just one part of a much larger, multiyear citizen outreach program in Santa Monica. Efforts include expanded customer satisfaction polling, greater use of the local cable channel and going to the city's farmers' markets to hand out budget materials and field suggestions face to face. All of these strategies are ways to contact residents who can't or don't care to go online. "We have a lot of 'high touch' to balance the high tech," Dennis said.

The Internet is one good way to draw in people whose voices traditionally are not heard at the local level, said Jane Gruenebaum, executive director for the National League of Women Voters in Washington, D.C. "The larger question is always how do you engage the disengaged-young people, the economically disadvantaged and minorities. The Internet isn't the single solution, but it's a useful component to a multiphased approach." In particular, Gruenebaum said, the Web is a good way to embrace younger citizens, a group that has a poor record of civic participation but a strong comfort level with online technology.

The budget suggestion project required little effort and no capital to get up and running. The simple form, which is based on HTML and Perl, was developed in-house and fits easily with Santa Monica's long-standing culture of technological advancement.

"Santa Monica was the first city in the country to offer interactive online government," said Keith Kurtz, Internet systems coordinator for the city. "We've had online forms since 1991, which predates the World Wide Web. The public knows and trusts them, so the context is already there." The Santa Monica site now boasts more than 200 forms for services ranging from license renewals to registration for recreational classes to petty theft reports.

Kurtz expressed surprise when asked if nonresidents with access to the Internet might seek to influence the budget or if locals might try to "stuff the ballot box" to make sure, for example, that funds for the skateboard park get allocated. "Theoretically, somebody could do it," he said. "We never discussed it."

The site uses Secure Socket Layer technology but only for transactions involving a credit card. Otherwise, the goal is to keep things as open and accessible as possible. "It's the nature of the Web to solicit information and give feedback. The more controls we put on the site, the more downward motion there is on participation," Kurtz said.

So far, every person who has filed an online suggestion has voluntarily filled in all the boxes on the form for first and last name, street address, home and business phone and e-mail address, Rambeau said. Furthermore, she feels confident that staffers in her office would pick up on any unscrupulous or invalid suggestions in the course of processing the requests.

The biggest benefit the form offers to department heads and the City Council, Rambeau said, is a wide reach. Council meetings tend to draw the same faces, but the Internet has opened up that roster a bit. "We have seen names from people who are active in the community, but there's also been a lot of new people who haven't gotten involved yet." And that, in Rambeau's opinion, can only be a plus for the community. "The more suggestions you hear, the better decision you can make because you've heard from more of the public."

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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