The Ask Matters

About two weeks ago, DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, held a series of virtual budget engagement forums to share her draft budget for FY2022. The format her team chose was extremely clever.

While waiting for the broadcast to start, participants were invited to answer a few questions about themselves (location, demographic information, ranking of key priorities), then each deputy mayor was given the floor for a short presentation on her department (health, education, housing, etc.).

The forum concluded with a game for participants. Each person watching was given $100 to distribute as she saw fit across the city’s six main budget “buckets.” The full city budget is obviously much more than $100 (it will be $16.9B for FY2022), but it was an exercise in setting priorities with limited dollars. (If you’re curious, you can check it out at

Each of the deputy mayors used the time to present the key priorities for their cluster of agencies, but one in particular stood out: Deputy Mayor Lucinda Babers, head of the Department of Operations and Infrastructure.

Now Operations and Infrastructure may sound pretty dull, but DM Babers got creative. She used a slightly goofy – but memorable – Ghostbusters “who ya gonna call?” framing for her presentation. But she made two particular presentation choices that had a major impact.

  1. Story telling
  2. Specific ask

Story Telling

DM Babers told the story of the fictional “Little Johnny,” a boy who uses city services as he goes about his day. Johnny needs a safe way (protected bike lanes, safe sidewalks) to get to school which includes the city’s #VisionZero initiative to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. His family needs pollution monitoring so they can manage his asthma. Permitting and inspections ensure his house doesn’t “fall over!” Johnny needs access to technology so he can do virtual schooling right now and so he can do his homework once kids are back in classrooms.

DM Babers made the work of her cluster of agencies – transportation, permitting, energy & the environment, public works, the DMV – real through her story. She showed the impacts they all have on residents’ day to day lives.

Specific Ask

When you get down to it, $100 is not a lot to spend to cover the priorities of a city with 712,000+ residents. I, for one, had no idea what reasonable allocations would be between departments. Although the mayor had already shared the overall budget breakdown ($3.2B for education, $2.1B for public works, etc.), it was hard to translate that into percentages of $100 in my head.

DM Babers told budget engagement forum participants EXACTLY how many dollars she needed to fund each aspect of “Little Johnny’s” story she shared.

How did it turn out for her?

When the results of the $100 game were tallied at the end of the forum, DM Babers’s department got the full funding she requested.

When you’re making an ask, make it real, make it specific, and make sure it connects with your audience.