#1 – Balancing Act

Posted on November 18, 2019

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This is the company information page for the 2019 #ELGLHaverford award.

Learn more about the award program, and read about all of the honorees.

About Balancing Act

  • Website: https://abalancingact.com/ 
  • Contact person: Chris Adams
  • Contact email: Chris@abalancingact.com 
  • LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/showcase/balancing-act-budget-simulator/
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/BalancingActEP
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/balancingactonline/
  • Industry sector: Engagement
  • Minority/Women-Owned: No
  • Does the company have an articulated equity/inclusion policy: No
  • Nominated by: City of Norfolk, VA; City of Raleigh, NC; City of Kansas City, MO

Engagement With ELGL:

  • Blogs, Webinars, Podcasts with ELGL? Yes
    • Links to Content: https://elgl.org/engaging-the-public-in-the-budget-process/
  • Events, Activities with ELGL? Yes
    • Links to Events: https://elgl.org/business-directory/8135/balancing-act

Working with the Company:

Describe your work and interactions with the nominee – how have you worked with them, on what projects, in what capacity?

  • The City of Norfolk began using BalancingAct for online budget simulations and a taxpayer receipt tool beginning in 2017, in anticipation of FY 2019 budget development.
  • In the FY 2019 budget process, the city was facing a significant budget gap of $13.3 million, and the possibility of increased taxes. Given this situation, it was important that the community be engaged in the budget process. Fiscal challenges are as much a community problem as a government problem, and we knew the best solutions would be those identified in concert with residents. It was under this scenario that the City of Norfolk completely overhauled and modernized its public engagement process related to the annual budget. We transitioned from engaging residents through a few, heavily staffed two-hour workshops, to launching online simulations and holding engaging interactive activities with civic leagues that take less than thirty minutes. We increased our reach from about 100 residents to over 1,000, while making budget information more accessible, understandable, and empowering. At the same time, we reduced the amount of staff time required for public engagement from about 300 staff hours to less than 50.
    The problems we faced in this scenario were three-fold: disengaged and uninformed residents, a budget shortfall that needed solutions, and an enormous amount of staff time required to engage even a small number of residents. Traditionally, public engagement in the budget process had been limited to formal, mandated public hearings and the publication of the annual budget document. The few workshops that were held required an incredible amount of work to prepare for, and often resulted in an event that had as many, if not more, staff than participants. The majority of residents were only marginally interested in their government budget, and certainly not enough to set aside two or more hours of their day to attend a workshop. At the same time, budget shortfall had real consequences, and resident engagement is crucial in those times to get the pulse on priorities, generate ideas, and if nothing else, inform the public of the challenges and potential impact to resident services. 
  • I have worked with Balancing Act in both the City of Fort Lauderdale and the City of Raleigh.  Chris and Brenda are wonderful people and I always enjoy working with them. We worked with Balancing Act to create simple community engagement tools to enhance awareness and engagement around the annual budget process. The tool is a simple, yet powerful, way to demonstrate financial transparency and accountability. Chris has been great at connecting us with other thought leaders and providing empirical evidence to support these practices.  The Balancing Act simulation is also a wonderful tool to train internal staff on trade-offs required to balance the annual budget. It is always amazing to see field staff and department supervisors debate the trade-offs between operational needs versus public safety or internal support. 

What was the product/outcome of your relationship with the company?

  • Increased Engagement: Modernizing public engagement in the budget process resulted in a tenfold increase in resident participation during budget development. Prior to the use of online simulations, we had only about 100 participants. Under our new engagement plan, that number has increased to over 1,000.
  • Satisfied City Council: Improving public engagement and outreach related to the budget process was highly appreciated by City Council, some of whom praised the efforts during their remarks after formal adoption of the FY 2019 budget, complete with the ten-cent tax increase. We know, and made clear, that our results were not statistically significant, but by getting a pulse on resident reactions, and offering multiple opportunities for engagement and feedback, we believe we mitigated some of City Council’s concerns and socialized the concept and need for the tax increase incredibly well.
  • Improved Resident Understanding: Utilizing a simulation to engage residents in the budget process also improves understanding. It is essential during budget engagement that residents understand the reality of the cost of service. It’s easy for residents to share what they think a city should be doing – it’s much more difficult when they are forced to make tradeoffs between services they value. In our experience that is one of the most valuable takeaways of using online simulations.
  • City of Kansas City received both the 2018 GFOA Award for Excellence in Government Finance and the 2019 ICMA Local Government Excellence Award for Strategic Leadership and Governance which showcase our work, utilizing Balancing Act as part of our resident engagement component of the Citywide Business Plan process.
  • I have worked with Chris Adams with Balancing Act since meeting him during the-then Center for Priority Based Budgeting Conference in August 2015 (now ResourceX). Our Office of Management and Budget selected Balancing Act as our budget simulator tool to be utilized during our Citywide Business Plan’s Resident Work Sessions, a series of interactive resident engagement events tied to the annual Citywide Business Plan. Since then, we have utilized the tool to showcase both the submitted and annual budget, as well as performed simulations of various budget exercises.
  • Engagement with the community throughout the budget process.  Residents want services provided efficiently and effectively. Two-way communication with residents is essential so that when tough challenges arise there will be greater capacity for constructive dialogue. The budget simulations provide an easy way to get informed input on priorities and stimulate creative ideas to improve programs and we are excited to continue to explore these possibilities.  

What are three words you’d use to describe the company?

  • Innovative, Effective, and a Bargain!
  • Authentic, Engaging, Innovative
  • Energetic, Engaging, Accessible 

Describe the on boarding process for your work with the company – either when you personally started working with them, or when your organization did. What could someone else in local government know about starting work with this company?

  • We began working with Balancing Act in 2018, ahead of the FY 2019 budget, and the onboarding process was excellent. There were a series of webinars for new adopters, which included tutorials and discussion. He also opened up trial versions that we could explore, test, and discuss at the following webinar. Chris also connected us with other local government users, so that we could get opinions independently of how the system worked for them. What was great about the webinars is they were not just focused on the ‘how to’, but the “why” and the “who for.” We discussed the merits of the organization of the budget information, and how to make it educational without oversimplifying or overwhelming residents. This company really believes in the power of simulations to increase resident understanding, is willing to be flexible, and can back it up.
  • When we first launched, I was very nervous about publishing to the web, and there was a slight issue with the URL. I immediately called Chris, who promptly worked with me to correct the issue in no time. Since that time we have had no technical issues. In fact, Chris recently organized a phone call between a handful of budget folks across the US, in which we discussed the potential benefits of using the tool as a way to improve internal budget development. during that meeting, an idea came up to add another feature. Only a few months later, I was told it is likely going to be implemented. That is incredible service and responsiveness!
  • The tool was easy and simple to navigate. It took less than half a day to take our 500+ page, $1.73 billion budget and have the information loaded in the system. Chris and his staff has been very great to work with. 
  • Schedule a call with Chris to talk about your organizations needs.  I have always felt Chris is less interested in selling a product and more interested in forming lasting connections to improve our profession.  Once you determine the tools you want to add to your tool box, Balancing Act provides great trainings to get you up and running.  

What is the company’s pricing structure? Please be as descriptive as possible.

  • Pricing is based on population, and length of contract. In our case it has been one annual payment, but they have expressed willingness to be flexible to make it accessible.   
  • City of Kansas City, Missouri was one of the three cities that first launched Balancing Act. Since we were one of the first, our pricing cost is different than others. For an investment for less than $8,000 per year, is well worth it! 
  • Standardized pricing but they are good at working with you to get what you need.  The software is a steal for the value you will get in return.   

What’s the most interesting or fun aspect of your work with the company? 

  • I love working with BalancingAct because of the connections we make. The president of BalancingAct, Chris Adams, has been an incredible champion of innovative, effective, budget engagement and has been a great help to us professionally, by connecting local government budget officials to each other through webinars and phone conferences to brainstorm and discuss budget engagement topic areas that go far beyond just the role that BalancingAct plays as a tool for engagement. He has also helped connect us with groups like Alliance for Innovation and GFOA, to present our successes and share lessons learned. We never expected that kind of benefit, but it has been awesome.
  • Receiving two prestigious awards, utilizing the software tools!
  • Utilizing the tool in interdepartmental trainings and see the conversations between departments as they take real time information and work to balancing the citywide budget.  Most groups tend to fall back on raising revenues (taxes) to balance the budget, which leads to great conversations about the political process and trade-offs that might need to occur. 

How has your relationship with the company evolved or changed over time? How has the company reacted to or addressed any changes that your organization has requested in the scope/focus of your work together?

  • What is incredible, is that they have been just as engaged with us now as  two years ago when we first purchased the product. As stated earlier, the company has absolutely taken our ideas into consideration and are even now working on an additional element that will help us during the upcoming budget year. They understand that one size does not fit all, and are willing to work with us on ensuring we are successful and are able to present the budget and gather the information that we feel is important. 
  • No, it has gotten better! Each time, a new feature roles out, Chris always contacts our office to let us know to either test or give feedback. We are always happy to assist and test any new features we can roll out to our residents. 
  • Our relationship only continues to improve as we get more sophisticated in utilizing the functions.  We started out focusing on internal training but are now exploring more community engagement.  

Anything else to add about the company that we haven’t already asked you?

  • Chris Adams and his team has been nothing but supportive in our endeavors in our resident engagement process. I am more than happy to submit this nomination to ELGL. Thank you!
  • Wonderful people, wonderful product, wonderful outcomes. 
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