Why I Co-Created an App to Better Understand Toronto's Budget

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Why I Co-Created an App to Better Understand Toronto’s Budget

Budgetpedia helps Torontonians make sense of the city's often confusing budget and finances.

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Budgetpedia.ca is a place for people to learn about Toronto’s budget and meet like-minded people. It launched this week. I’m the project lead, and the lead software developer; more than 60 people have helped along the way over almost one and a half years. But why bother?

Since I arrived in Toronto in 1971, Toronto has amalgamated and evolved toward an in-fighting City Council. Just look at the transit gridlock. In fact the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance is worried enough that it’s recently convened a task force to help Council back away from it’s dysfunction. It claims that Toronto’s Council is “unusual.”

We can do better.

We need an agile local government to respond to our city’s challenges and needs. But that can be a problem. Our civil service (with exceptions) is still stuck in the two-century-old culture of top-down hierarchical compliance-driven management. That was invented to fight corruption, but compared to modern digital systems it’s obsolete and dysfunctional now. The old way of favouring process over outcomes, systems over people, and compliance over innovation (read ‘red tape’) needs to be turned on its head. Outcomes over process, people over systems, and innovation over compliance is the better way. With modern trends of digital platforms, open data, open government and collaborative decision making, there is a better way. I refer to this as modern government. And that’s what Budgetpedia.ca wants to support.

The Budgetpedia interactive allows users to drill down on old budgets to see trends.

The Budgetpedia interactive allows users to drill down on old budgets to see trends.

One of the most effective ways to make things better is simply to let people look at them. It was true for open source software, and it’s true of government. Open it up, and let people look. Closely. Things will get better.

So we’ve created Budgetpedia.ca to help people look more closely at our City, through its budgets, and collaborate with others doing the same.

What have we learned so far? For one thing, it’s hard to find good data. It’s easy enough to find lots of reports, but hard to assemble useful datasets. In fact what’s needed the most is provided the least: localized information. With some trouble we’ve assembled high level views going back to 2000 or so (allowing viewers to discern trends), but good data about local community centres, libraries, parks, fire and police stations and so on is virtually impossible to find. We hope to work with the City on that.

Our Budgetpedia explorer reveals some trends. Costs are up from 2000, but have more or less levelled off from 2010 or so. Levels of staffing, particularly proportional to population, is surprisingly flat. But costs of those staff are way up. An early look suggests that from 2000 Toronto staff have earned an extra 10—12 billion dollars (adjusted for inflation), and are continuing to enjoy higher pay compared to the previous period, amounting to over 1 billion dollars every year—larger than the police budget. We’re investigating to get better insights.

Police, parks and transit costs are up, library costs are flat, as are transportation division costs. Social housing costs are down, which could be a sign of priorities.

It’s a big budget. In 2016 $11.7B overall (including the rate-supported budget), $267M per ward, $66M per neighbourhood (walking distance), $10,000 per household, and over $4,000 per person.

Lots of money, lots of questions. We should all do our part to get involved in the answers.

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