Faced with the daunting task of making a city’s two-year budget not only understandable but interesting – a seemingly impossible proposition – Walnut Creek’s Gayle Vassar had a lot on her plate. But the city’s communications and outreach manager came armed with a secret weapon in that effort; her skills and perspective from her previous career as a journalist for the Contra Costa Times.
“I’m not your typical budget person,” Vassar told California Forward. “I was asked to put together something visual about the budget. I was shown the city’s publications and they were all bar graphs and pie charts and I thought there was no story there.”
A few weeks of collaboration with the city’s assistant city managers as well as some outside design help later, and Walnut Creek’s Budget Story was born. The Budget Story carefully lays out Walnut Creek’s finances in a way that’s visually appealing and easy to grasp – it’s more magazine than textbook. “I think visual story telling is a great tool for government,” Vassar said. “We take government so seriously that people don’t want to pay attention. We’re kind of tricking them into being interested in government.”
The Story isn’t just about shoving numbers down Walnut Creek citizens’ throats, but actually explaining the short term and long term goals of each sector of the city’s government while being transparent and up front about what the city faces. “We’ve got gaps,” Vassar said. “It doesn’t matter what we cut. We’re going to have a gap every year unless we figure out how to stop doing things entirely or get more money.”
“Putting that graphic that showed the step-by-step goals of the city – you have to really define those goals with your community,” Vassar said. “We wanted people to think they’re getting a good value for their money. The whole point of it is to know that you’re putting your resources so it can achieve the most.”
By combining the skills of its public servants with the desire to be as transparent as possible, Walnut Creek has bridged the gap between government wonkiness and everyday straight talk. Others have noticed. At Atlanta’s Transforming Local Government Conference last April, Walnut Creek took its Budget Story on the road. “They said the room held 110, and about 130 people were in the room,” Vassar said. “It’s clearly a topic people were interested in.”
If that interest can make the transition from concept to product in other cities, Californians everywhere will be that much closer to knowing where there local dollars are going and why.