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Operationalizing Equity and Social Justice in Budgeting

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Aaron Rubardt
August 5, 2019

In King County’s Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget (PSB), we often say that budgets are a reflection of our values. King County has long valued equity and social justice, and our County Executive recently took this a step further by defining our core guiding principle—our true north—as, “Making King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive.”

As we work to operationalize the true north and King County’s equity and social justice goals in the budget office, we are taking a hard look at the equity impacts of our budget process. We are extremely proud of our budgets as policy documents that have made a difference in people’s lives. They speak to the County’s commitment to efficient and effective operations, and make important investments in clean water and healthy habitat, homelessness, mobility and other important services that reflect the values of our residents. 

But we know that the budget process itself—an incremental budgeting process—poses one of the biggest challenges we face in developing a more equitable budget. Incremental budgets make marginal changes from year to year (or biennia to biennia in our case), rather than starting from scratch each budget cycle.

While incremental budgeting provides welcome structure and stability for our agencies, it also unintentionally perpetuates disparities in our communities. With incremental budgeting, it’s extremely challenging to shift significant resources from wealthier areas of the County to those that traditionally have been under-resourced.  New funds can be invested to communities with fewer resources, but it’s extremely difficult to cut funds from one community and give them to another. To date, efforts to move toward a zero-based budgeting process, in which we would take a hard look at where each agency invests its resources, are met with immediate resistance because of concerns about the extensive work involved in developing a new process, as well as concerns that there would be “winners” and “losers” if funds were reallocated.  

Despite the challenges that our central budget office is facing with better integrating equity into our budgeting process, our agencies are making great strides toward developing more equitable budgets.

Equity Cabinets

King County has been investing in parks, trails and open space since 1968, yet roughly 500,000 people—nearly a quarter of our residents—do not live within ready access to a publicly owned park, green space, or trail. Most of these residents live in communities with the lowest household incomes, the greatest health needs and in areas that have historically lacked public infrastructure investments.

In 2018, the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks launched an Open Space Equity Cabinet to develop an equity-based approach to investments in open space and to redress disparities. The Equity Cabinet is comprised of 21 residents representing 12 different community-based organizations throughout King County. The Equity Cabinet worked together for nearly a year to develop specific recommendations for changes the County can make to ensure that funds are invested in communities that need it the most. Specific strategies recommended by the cabinet include:

  • Updating County code to reduce barriers to investment in high-need communities.
  • Implementing a new community engagement approach to better reach low-income and limited English-speaking residents.
  • Using targeted metrics and criteria to help guide where funds are deployed.

The Open Space Equity Cabinet was so successful that another King County agency is now working with the group to better integrate equity into policies and decisionmaking. King County Metro Transit is working with the Equity Cabinet to develop the guiding principles and recommendations Metro will use to update transit policies and plans in equitable and sustainable ways. Staff at Metro note that while the agency has conducted extensive community outreach in the past, this new approach, in which community members own much of the process and outcomes, is a significant—and welcome—shift in the power dynamic.

Moving Forward

With the 2021-2022 budget cycle just around the corner, our budget office is partnering with our agencies and the County’s Office of Equity and Social Justice to take steps toward a more inclusive budget process. While we know that shifting to zero-based budgeting is not currently an option, we will ask agencies to provide deeper overviews of their base budgets, so we can develop a better understanding of how we have historically allocated funds.

We are also taking steps toward a less top-down approach to our budgeting process. We plan to work with community-based organizations to develop budget proposals in targeted policy areas where community members know what services are needed the most.

In addition, the King County Council is considering an ordinance to create an Equity, Civil Rights and Social Justice Commission, which will be tasked, in part, with ensuring that the County’s budget investments are focused on the people and places with the greatest needs. It’s not yet clear how our budget office will coordinate with the commission, but we look forward to working with them to develop a more equitable budget process.     

Aaron Rubardt is the Deputy Budget Director for King County. He has worked with the County for over a decade with a focus on financial management, planning and risk mitigation. 

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