We were delighted to hear that Newcastle City Council won the 2017 Pride Award for Best Use of Digital last month, for a website Indigo helped develop.
The People’s Budget is an online tool to encourage the public to engage with the council’s draft budget proposals. This engagement has always been difficult because it’s a struggle to get people interested in the first place, let alone to the point of understanding the intricacies of local government finance and the dilemmas councillors face when setting the budget.
For the past seven years, councils up and down the country have faced significant budget pressures which has resulted in services being removed or reduced.
Unless people are aware of this and understand it better, they are not inclined to get involved and the process ends up being very negative and attracts criticism of the council.
Our brief was to create a digital platform which:
- Allowed members of the public to get a better understanding of Newcastle City Council’s budget
- Make residents aware of the difficult choices facing the council
- Empower local people in the decision-making process
The Council’s rationale was that effective community engagement can significantly increase public confidence and trust. Also when those who serve listen to the citizens, they become better informed of what is needed by the community and generally make better decisions. So the key to this campaign was to radically change the existing process and create a digital platform that would simplify the council’s budget and the proposals that were put forward to be considered by Newcastle residents. It was imperative that this digital solution would empower residents in the decision-making process and put them in the seats of councillors, to understand the scale of the challenge, and that every decision has consequences.
The existing process meant the public had to read 20 individual documents consisting of 750 pages, and then directing them to a survey to have their say. The Council needed to find an easier way to present this information which would allow people to just ‘get it’.
There was a strong desire to improve on the figures from 2015/16, when the budget consultation process generated only 3,500 unique visits to the consultation website and 193 people completed a survey. Due to workforce reductions, the council stopped facilitating drop in sessions with about 10 staff where the public used to go and find out more information on the budget and have their say.
The Council wanted the digital platform to be as simple as possible. We took the principles of Sim City and applied it to the simulator so that residents began to understand that every decision has consequences. We made the platform as interactive as possible and converted council jargon into everyday language so that residents could appreciate the difficult choices facing the city.
We also built the simulator to explain the difference between Capital and Revenue spend to counteract the argument that ‘you’re spending this money on shiny buildings when you could be spending it on social care’.
Crucially, we empowered residents by allowing them to submit their own budgets. Individual budgets were then collected and the aggregate budgets created the People’s Budget, the sum total of all budgets submitted. The Council made this public to enable transparency and greater accountability.
Over 46,000 unique visitors interacted with the platform in the 3 months it was live, an increase of 1231% in visitors from the consultation website in 2015/16. This resulted in 539 budgets being submitted and attempted, an increase of 179% from last year’s budget consultation.
The People’s Budget platform also sparked a lot of social media conversations, with 300,500 reach on Facebook, 116,621 impressions on Twitter and 49,980 video views on all the videos posted on the budget.
Residents were not only able to interact with the platform and get a better understanding of the Council’s budget position, but they influenced a council tax rise of 4.95% in the city to deal with the cuts. For the first time, residents were able to influence which services could be protected and which services could be cut.
“This level of intelligence and insight from what our residents wanted has been revolutionary. And it has helped our councillors to listen to what our residents have to say.” Newcastle City Council statement