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The Importance of Story, Part 3: Flip the Script

March 13, 2015
This month in Public Information, I want to continue our exploration of narrative building by taking you, the reader, step by step through the creative process I employ when faced with a common government problem: the budget.

We all know the pain and wonder of budgeting, and we all know how a budget properly presented can create community support. Unfortunately, we can also point to numerous examples of budgets improperly explained to the community, and the disastrous effects that can occur.  

I choose a budget because it is literally the most boring thing in the world (this is scientifically proven, so don’t argue it). But, and this is a big but, it doesn’t have to be that way.

This document is how our organization is going to affect the lives of roughly 34,000 people over the next year. This document allows our committed service people save lives when times get tough. It alleviates the stress and aggravation of traffic problems. It allows for a new park, land conservation, and numerous other projects that better the lives of our constituents.

So let’s explain it that way. Please take a minute and visit Milton’s web-based interactive budget.

Let's start with this understanding: Only finance-minded people can understand what’s happening in most government budgeting documents. There are simply too many sources of income and expenditures to expect the hardworking layman to invest his or her precious time into understanding where tax dollars go.

So it’s our job to tell them in the simplest and most compelling way possible. And this requires us to flip the script, to think about communicating in wholly different ways from past administrations. We have incredible tools at our disposal – let’s use them!

First, let’s give residents what they want to know – how much money is being spent this year. Big and impossible to miss, right at the top.

Then, let’s explain the process. You’ll notice the video I cut together explaining the basic budgeting cycle. It’s five minutes long (which is pretty long for YouTube … but this is a complex process), so pretty much anybody can spare the time to watch it. It’s explained in plain English, with visual examples to make it abundantly clear what we’re talking about.

Next come big, bright and engaging visual examples of our revenue sources and expenditures. In the normal document, these are columns on a ledger sheet. Now, though, it’s clear at first glance what’s happening with your tax money.

Next, let’s highlight those connection points – how this money is spent to better your life. We know from market research that what’s most important to our residents is lifestyle: things like parks, trails, conservation. Again, we use big, engaging graphics that are easy to understand. They’re laid out simply and logically.

Next, let’s look at those road projects. Everybody drives, and everybody despises traffic. So just give residents a simple, visually based way to understand what projects are complete, which are scheduled to be completed, and what’s in the pipeline.

Then we finish up with some salient points about process, and ask for feedback. Of course, we also provide the full 174 page document – but isn’t this one page breakdown much more engaging?

I could go on and on about this, but I simply don’t have the space. The point is to think creatively about the most boring things. If you can start to train your mind to do this, you’ll be set for life.

I’ll see you next month. 
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.