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Budget exhibits: “An unknown story in public administration”

When Thomas Greitens shows his students photos of “Budget Exhibits” from the early part of the 20th Century, they are shocked. “It’s a weird idea to have a budget exhibit and have a hundred thousand people coming to it,” he says.

Thomas Greitens

Now largely forgotten, budget exhibits spread through the country in the first two decades of the 1900s. Then, in the 1920s, they were largely abandoned as being too political. “That’s an unknown story in public administration about how the early reformers tried to engage citizens. But that was the goal – to engage citizens so they could understand complex issues more clearly,” said Greitens, associate professor at Central Michigan University and Masters of Public Administration program director there.

With his help, and the skills of our son and daughter-in-law, Ben Greene and Madeline Walter, we created the slide show that will be up on our home page over the next few weeks. It shows the material used in budget exhibits in New York, Spokane and St. Louis, which utilized charts and cartoons to educate and engage. Greitens first learned about budget exhibits when he was getting his Ph.D at Northern Illinois University. “My professor, Irene Rubin, was well known for teaching the politics of governing. She had done research on the early reform movement and had mentioned these budget exhibits in class.”

But Greitens didn’t have a full sense of what these exhibitions looked like until he started collecting early photos himself.

The pictures he has shared with us, provide a good reminder that “there is really nothing new under the sun.” We often talk with government managers who have introduced new ideas into their cities, counties or states, not realizing that the same ideas were introduced a decade or more before. In fact, transparency and performance measurement in government management both have a long history behind them and there are multiple lessons to be learned from their past success and failures.

Charts and graphs are now widely used on the Internet to explain different aspects of government finance, but Greitens muses over whether the idea of an educationally-oriented budget exhibit might have merit today, particularly since citizens no longer have the civics training they once had.

“We could use the budget exhibit to educate citizens today about the budget, about the complexities of the budget, how decisions are made and the outcome of budgeting decisions. Get them thinking about budgeting in new ways.”


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