By Racquel Palmese
Politics and partisanship aside, it’s impossible to understand how hard it is to balance the state budget until you try it yourself. This is the epiphany that came to Next 10 founder Noel Perry and his associates and led to the creation of the now six-year old California Budget Challenge. Some 300,000 Californians have used the online tool as a combination game and knowledge base of most things budget-related and to try their hand at balancing the behemoth state budget. The Challenge has just undergone an upgrade to allow for usage on handheld devices and through social media, and Perry is considering correlating responses to the Challenge.
In an interview with Green Technology magazine, he talks about the project and why a bright future for California will depend on its population knowing about the trade-offs and challenges inherent in getting it into balance.
Describe the California Budget Challenge.
It’s an online tool that citizens can use to learn about the difficult tradeoffs involved in the budget process. The California Budget challenge presents a number of policy questions both on the revenue side and the spending side and asks participants to choose from various options. The goal for people who play the game is to try and balance the budget.
I want to emphasize that Next 10 is a nonpartisan organization, and the California Budget Tool is a nonpartisan tool. There are options for people who want to increase revenues or increase spending, or reduce spending or reduce revenues. We think that is very important.
How many people have participated so far, and how did it get started?
Over 300,000 people have taken the challenge over the last six years. When I founded Next 10, we went around the state and gave some budget presentations. We realized that even sophisticated business people would not understand a lot of aspects of the budget, let alone most people in California. We were trying to figure out how we could reach a wider audience with our presentation, and we thought that if we created a California budget online tool, we could help Californians better understand the trade-offs involved in trying to balance the budget.
I'm really proud that we were able to come up with an approach like this to try to reach and educate Californians. Next 10 is about educating, engaging and empowering Californians so that they can make better decisions. I firmly believe that the more educated individuals are about an issue, we're all as a group going to get to a better solution. The more Californians are educated, the better they will be able to make decisions about our future.
Balancing a budget with hundreds of line items, all of them crucial to a great many people seems like a daunting task. What do you think is the current issue that is the most difficult to figure out?
We go all around the state and give presentations where the participants make choices by using clickers. I think some of the bigger issues have to do with higher education. There's a real commitment on the part of Californians to keep our higher education system sound, and at the same time there's the challenge of trying to figure out how to pay to keep higher education at that high level of quality. Also, K-12 education in California is a huge issue. There is a lot of commitment to these among users of the tool.
On the revenue side, there are different approaches to what should happen with taxes - whether they should be reduced, or whether they should be increased.
Do you think once people engage with this challenge that they change their views on the issues?
I think for us it's hard to gauge whether people change their views. When we go around the state and have a room of 50 people who are doing the challenge, they're listening to comments by other people. Do they change their opinions? My answer has to be that I don't know, but I do know that there's an educational process that's going on when people with different views get in the same room and are open to hearing other people's opinions. I know it's a step forward to have people sharing diverse views.
The online tool was re-launched in February - what's new about it?
One of the things is that it's got a brand new design, new graphics and colors. We've also upgraded the software to make it more accessible so that one can use it on an iPad with a touch screen, which can also be accessed by the blind. Also there's much more information organized in a way that people can also use the Challenge as a resource for objective information about the budget.
We have an expert who is working to create the information and background for questions having to do with revenue and spending in the state. If you wanted to learn about the California budget, you can go there and look at all the background information without playing the actual challenge game. You can learn an extensive amount about the California budget in a very easy to read, accessible way.
Also, we've created more policy choices than we had before, based on requests from users. A very interesting part of the challenge is where you can look at pro and con arguments for every policy choice. Then there's also our Take Action button, where you can contact your elected officials, the Governor, the legislators, or you can email your friends and share the budget that you came up with.
Next 10 makes budget presentations throughout California. Are you available to organizations, schools or municipalities who request presentations?
Yes. They would need to get together a minimum number of people to make it worthwhile for us, but we want to get it out there. In the last year and a half we've made over 100 presentations to junior colleges, colleges, high schools and other kinds of NGOs and different government groups. We're very proud to be able to bring this to Californians, and we think it's a particularly positive experience for someone to attend. After the session is over, people leave the room with a fair amount more knowledge about how the budget works and what the challenges difficult trade-offs are.
Is there an instance that stands out to you about people's reactions to learning about the budget details. Do they get frustrated? Excited?
I think what stands out in my mind is that we notice that participants are learning various facts that they never knew. For example, at the beginning of the presentation we show a pie chart of how the general fund budget is spent.
There has been polling done over the last couple of years showing that many people believe that the greatest amount of money that the state spends is for prisons. That, in fact, is not true; between 40 - 50 percent of the money spent in California’s state budget is for education. So, right at the beginning you present facts about where the money is spent, and you know that a lot of people are surprised. [See sidebar – ed.]
On the revenue side, the greatest amount of money that we take in comes from income taxes, and many people don't realize that either. Right from the get-go we're able to dispel certain myths and show the facts on the budget through two simple pie charts that have to do with revenue and spending. It's important to note that your audience composition will influence what the responses are. In other words, if you have a younger high school audience as opposed to maybe a business group or a League of Women Voters group, the answers are often reflective of the demographic.
How is this all funded?
It's funded by me. I've personally funded Next 10 for the past few years, and I'm very committed to the organization.
What is the benefit to a city or locality for engaging with the Challenge, and how do they do it?
We license the Challenge to cities. We use the back-end software of the Challenge and license it to a city that wants to create its own city budget challenge. So far we’ve licensed it to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda and Oakland. For example, for Los Angeles you're able to go on the site and you’ll see all the revenue numbers and spending numbers for the city along with specific choices. [The Los Angeles budget challenge for 2011-2012 closed in February, but results are available online. – ed.] It's very analogous to the California Budget Challenge - they create policy questions that the city's challenge users are able to make decisions about, reflecting what their values are and how they wish to handle the difficult trade-offs within their cities.
The city challenges are one part of what we do, and we're pleased with that part of our work because we feel it feeds the main goal of educating and informing Californians. Whether it's a city challenge or a state challenge, they're learning more about government finances and really opining on how they think they'd like to spend the money.
Do you wish everyone would participate in the Challenge?
It would be good for people to inform themselves about the difficult budget challenges that the state is confronting so that they are armed with factual information that they can use as they talk with their friends, as they talk with their legislators and as they participate in democracy in California. I think they should consider doing the challenge because it's going to help them better understand the deep-seated issues here in California. I apologize for being a broken record about difficult trade-offs or choices, but that's what we're trying to help Californians understand, because it helps them go to a deeper level of sensitivity to the challenge of balancing the budget.
People seem to be frustrated with government right now; they feel it's out of control and they don't understand why every little thing seems so partisan all the time. Does this come up at your presentations?
We have been fortunate in that just about all our presentations have been very civil, and people are courteous and respectful. Once in awhile there may be someone who's really focused on one specific issue and that's the one they want to keep coming back to, which is different than considering the whole budget challenge itself. But for the most part the presentations that we've done around the state have been very respectful and we're pleased with that.
When people take the challenge, do you tally the responses in any way?
We haven't done it in the past, but with our new system we're thinking about it. One of the things we want to caution everyone about is that this is not registered poll. Polling people need to be very scientific in their methodology, and we know that the California Budget Challenge is not a poll. We would not look at one of our policy questions and say that since everybody voted a certain way, it reflects what most Californians would also vote for.
But we are looking at how we might disseminate some of the information, if we think it's worth disseminating and whether it adds positive things to the conversation. We'll look at that over the next four or five months.
When it comes to government, especially government’s green initiatives at the state and local levels, do you see a relationship between the Budget Challenge and these efforts?
I think it's really important that the California budget continue to move towards being balanced, and I think that has meaning for those Californians that are committed to a strong clean tech future for the state. In general, the ability to invest in the future of California is partially predicated on the budget being balanced. More specifically, what I mean is that we've been dealing with budget challenges and a deficit since probably all the way back to 2003 or 2004.
I think the budget deficit, and trying to balance the budget, and making those hard decisions on the part of the government and the legislature, has consumed a tremendous amount of their time. However I believe after we get the budget balanced, then policy makers in California, along with leading business people and thought leaders, will be able to bring their minds to figuring out where the investment in California needs to happen to make for a brighter future for Californians.
I talked about higher education and K-12 education earlier; once the budget gets balanced, I believe there can be a more thoughtful intense focus on these two areas to figure out how to improve the quality of education in California. It’s been stymied over the last few years because of the tremendous focus on trying to figure out how to balance the budget. As it relates to clean technology, as it relates to the different areas of sustainability that the people in California are committed to, I think there has been tremendous success here in reducing the use of carbon and an awareness of the importance of making the state more sustainable.
I think that this area also falls within that domain that once we get the budget balanced we could be able to spend more of our time and activities figuring out what we need to do make California more sustainable.
It seems that what you're doing is the antidote to the inundation of political advertising and partisan spin. The Challenge seems to be one of the few things that offers an alternative to all of that, encouraging us to become informed and think for ourselves.
That makes my day!