Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Argyll and Bute Council budget simulator exercise

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Credit: sommart on iStock

This article from Argyll and Bute Council unpacks their budget simulator, which they used for the first time last year to raise awareness of the council’s financial challenges and understanding of how difficult it is to balance a council budget. In this piece, Argyll and Bute share the important lessons and insights they gained from running the simulator.  

“If you spend budget on one service, you have less to spend on another – setting council budgets is as simple and as complex as that”. This was, in part, how we introduced the budget simulator when we invited people to use it and tell us about their service priorities. It was also one of the aspects of council budget planning that using the simulator brought home to people. That and the fact that there’s just not enough budget to do everything we would like to do or even everything that matters.

Annual budget consultations have been a feature of our budget planning process for a number of years now, and we have tried various different approaches to making consultations appealing, accessible and meaningful.

We’ve run consultations on specific areas of service and on council-wide services. We’ve asked people which services they would reduce spend on to bridge funding gaps. And we’ve asked people to give high-level views on approaches they would take to balance the budget, from raising income to stopping services.

We have also used different ways to reach and involve people, from face-to-face meetings and paper questionnaires to online surveys.

As a rule, we have been pleased to receive good levels of response from across Argyll and Bute, and across age groups.

Last year, we decided to use a budget simulator for the first time to give people more of an experience of setting a council budget, and through this raise understanding of the council’s financial challenges and of just how difficult it is to balance a council budget.

The simulator set out the different areas of service that receive council funding and gave people the option to increase spend or reduce it by different amounts from 5% to 100%. We also listed options for generating income, for example through increasing fees or charges. Every time they made a choice, they could see the budget gap reduce or increase.

The simulator contained a lot of information for people to read, which we know from comments that some people read, and some did not.

There was obviously an initial explanation of the council’s financial situation and the challenges we faced. We also provided information on the impact of each individual choice. For example, we explained that a 50% reduction in the Corporate Communications budget could make it more difficult for people to access the services and support they need as there would be significantly less information available from the council.

Overall, we received responses from people aged 16 to 75+, and from mainland and island communities, with respondents making 17,000 choices to balance budgets. This was very welcome feedback. However, we received a significantly lower number of responses than usual.

The software we used did not register how many people started but did not complete the exercise so we don’t have that insight into understanding what might have caused this fall in numbers. Potential factors are:

  • Completing the simulator was overall a bigger ‘ask’ of people, in terms of time and attention, than previous consultation exercises have tended to be. For example, the simulator provided more than 40 options to reduce the budget or raise income, and respondents could not just choose the services that mattered to them; they could only submit their choices when they had made enough decisions to reach a balanced budget.
  • We also ran the exercise at an earlier-than-usual point in the budget-setting process (June to August, further from the decision-making point) so that the council could involve communities’ priorities more in developing budget savings options.
  • We also, as mentioned, asked for views on general levels of reduction rather than on specific cuts to specific service areas.

Encouragingly, however, many of the comments we received indicated an understanding of the council’s financial challenges.

As well as comments about campaigning for more funding: “no more cuts, government funding increase would be best” or “there should be fair funding for councils”. All options for raising income (through property leases, fees and charges or council tax) received support for increases: “let’s not sacrifice our local services”.

Overall, we welcomed the time and effort given by respondents to the budget simulator exercise, and the feedback they provided. While we do not currently have plans to use it again, we would not rule it out as something we consider implenting again in the future.



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