Equity and Social Justice in Budgeting
*This database entry was adapted from an article for the ASPA PA Times Online
King County Washington’s Office of Performance, Strategy, and Budget often says that “our budgets are a reflection of our values.” King County has long valued equity and social justice, yet has struggled to incorporate these values into its budgeting process.
One of the reasons operationalizing equity and social justice in budgeting has been difficult is due to the budgeting process itself. King County currently uses an incremental budgeting process, where incremental changes are made from year to year rather than starting from scratch each budget cycle. Incremental budgeting provides structure and stability in county agencies, yet it makes it difficult to shift significant resources from wealthier areas of the county to others that need it. New funds can be invested in communities with fewer resources, but it is extremely difficult to cut funds from one community and reallocate them to another.
Efforts to change the county’s budgeting process to a zero-based budgeting process have met significant resistance because there are concerns with the work involved in developing an entirely new process, as well as concerns that there will be “winners” and “losers” if funds were reallocated. Despite these challenges, various agencies are working directly with residents and community organizations to develop more equitable budgets and allocate funds to where they are needed most.
The goal is to invest in communities with lower incomes and communities that have historically lacked public infrastructure investments, particularly in areas that residents themselves designate as needing investment.
In 2018, the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks launched an Open Space Equity Cabinet. The purpose for this cabinet was to close the gap between communities with the least access to parks, trails, and open space—typically low-income communities—and other communities in King County that enjoy greater access to parks and open space. The Equity Cabinet is comprised of 21 residents representing 12 different community-based organizations throughout King County. The Equity Cabinet worked together for almost 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:
Following the success of the Open Space Equity Cabinet, the King County budget office is partnering with other agencies and the County’s Office of Equity and Social Justice to take steps towards a more inclusive budgeting process. Even though zero-based budgeting is not currently an option, the county is asking agencies to provide deeper overviews of their base budgets to help the county understand how it has historically allocated funds. The county is also working towards a less top-down approach to budgeting and has a plan to work with community-based organizations to develop budget proposals in policy areas where community members know what services are needed most.
The Equity Cabinet is composed of residents that represent community organizations throughout King County. Residents in the Equity Cabinet work directly with county agencies to develop budget recommendations that allocate funds to specific areas in historically under-invested areas and communities.
The budgeting office is planning to partner with other agencies and community organizations to move toward a more inclusive budgeting process in the 2021-2022 budget cycle. The King County Council is also considering an ordinance to create an Equity, Civil Rights and Social Justice Commission that will be tasked with ensuring that the county’s investments are focused on the people and the places with the greatest needs.
The cabinet created an Open Space Equity Cabinet Recommendation Report.
Open Space Equity Cabinet website
Deputy Budget Director for King County