Are Participatory Budgeting Games the Perfect Game?

We’ve completed our fourth Sprint for the San José Budget Programs, adding resident recruitment, improving copy, and providing more information on the overall process to our d3decides.com web site. The City has now started to work on the actual content for the sessions, which has motivated me to revisit the core design of both Buy a Feature and the Budget Game, my extension of Buy a Feature created in 2011 for Participatory Budgeting with limited resources.

A Theory of Fun
Buy this book – you’ll love it!

I’m looking at my own work with fresh eyes, as I’ve recently read A Theory of Fun, Ralph Koster’s marvelous book on gaming and gaming design. Ralph laid out a set of qualities and attributes that a “perfect game” would possess and it has me wondering if Buy a Feature and The Budget Game are the world’s perfect game.

To explore this, let’s start with a review of Buy a Feature and its progeny, the Budget Game, and then compare these to the attributes of a perfect game outlined by Ralph.

The Development of the Budget Game

We started producing Participatory Budgeting events for San José in 2011 with our first Budget Game. The detailed design of this first event can be found in my original post here, but for this post I’ll just summarize the rules of Buy a Feature and the Budget Game.

There is a list of 12-20 items for sale. These could be features for a dishwasher or government services, like keeping a library open. There is a set of scarce economic resources that individual players in the game control to buy what they want. Five to 8 players collaboratively purchase the items they think are most important. Once an item is purchased, it is purchased for the group. We explore the results to learn what was purchased (the priorities!) and why these were important (the negotiations among players).

 
What makes Buy a Feature especially “fun” is that most items require collaborative purchasing — that is, if the item costs $120, and each player has $50, then at least three players must contribute funds to purchasing the item.

What makes Buy a Feature serious is that you can’t have everything you want, so you have to choose, and choose carefully, because your choices will impact the city budget. What makes the game scalable is that you are working in a large number of small groups and we can scale these groups to the size of the physical space, or, using our online platform, to an unbounded number of groups.

What makes the results actionable are that people are purchasing “whole and complete” items. Specifically, if an item is not purchased, then it just isn’t as important as items that are purchased.

The “fun” aspect that I’ve come to appreciate better from reading Ralph’s book is that this negotiation is an intense form of learning – and this learning is “fun” – adult fun.

Buy a Feature works perfectly for collaborative Budget Allocation or Budget Investment activities. For example, in 2014 San José residents used Buy a Feature to determine how they might allocate a ¼ or ½ sales tax project to respectively raise $34M or $68M (official results from 2014 available here).

Buy a Feature does not work as well when organization is facing a significant deficit and needs to make cuts in a budget. This was the situation in San José in 2011, 2012 and 2013. We needed a different game – the Budget Game.

The Design Of the Budget Game

The Budget Game builds on the core mechanics of Buy a Feature in two ways. First, it starts with a list of potential items to purchase but gives the players a very limited, and typically zero, budget (we refer to these as the “green sheet”). Second, it provides a means for the players to acquire items by giving them a list of items they can CUT from the budget or a list of taxes they can raise (the “red sheet”). The trick is that players must unanimously agree to a red sheet item before they are given money. If agreement is reached, the funds associated with that item are distributed equally among the players.

I’d like to stress the importance of unanimously agreement. This is a very powerful, hard to achieve requirement. It requires subtle negotiation, listening, understanding and accepting the impact of a given set of choices. I invite you to look at the results of the Budget Games from 2013—you’ll see that unanimous agreement was NOT achieved on every item. Some groups of residents decided to raise taxes; others didn’t. Some groups of residents decided to cut services; others didn’t. The reasons were varied and compelling.

So the design of the Budget Game is:
[ordered_list]

  1. We have a list of budget items that community leaders can fund (the “green sheet”).
  2. Community leaders do not have enough money to purchase these items.
  3. We have a second list of budget cuts or tax increases that community leaders can select to get more money (the “red sheet”).
  4. The pricing and structure of items on either list are set by the City and cannot be adjusted.
  5. Community leaders are placed into groups of 5 to 8 people. Two Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architects manage the process, one as the Facilitator and one as the Obsever.
  6. There is no requirement that any items are purchased or cuts. The Community leaders are in complete control of their virtual money.

[/ordered_list]

Is Buy a Feature and the Budget Game the Ideal Game?

Let’s review Koster’s attributes for an ideal game and see how Buy a Feature and the Budget Game stack up.

Koster Ideal Game AttributeBuy a Feature / The Budget Game (BAF/BG)
It would be thought-provoking. BAF/BG are so much more than "thought-provoking": You're not only deal with the financial challenges of balancing a budget, your choices matter! If you agree to cut the police helicopter program (as San José residents did in 2011), you're agreeing to a significant change in operations. Understanding how this will affect both you and your fellow residents is deeply thought-provoking and the most essential attribute of a serious game: the results of the game materially affect the players, and in this case, the entire City (which of course explains why we're working so hard to scale this event to 50,000 individuals in Feb 2016).
It would be revelatory.BAF/BG reveal a number of hidden assumptions along with providing insight into how the City actually works. We've found that once residents understand the actual cost of specific programs they are better equipped to make choices on funding.
It might contribute to the betterment of society. The research from the United Nations is extremely clear: Participatory Budgeting substantially improves societies. It provides a direct voice from citizens to their elected officials. Over time, it creates positive system dynamics, as citizens see that their choices in the games are directly impacting their lives. In other words - the "game" becomes serious.
It would force us to reexamine assumptions.One of our favorite stories from the BAF/BG sessions is how residents of San José tear down assumptions of their fellow residents from other parts of the cities through these games. They walk in thinking they're unique in their values, hopes and dreams, only to walk out with an understanding that they share similar values, hopes and dreams with their fellow residents. They create strong relationships that form the foundation for action.
It would give us different experiences each time we tried it.We've been playing BAF/BG for years with residents of San José, and each year the experience varies based on the content within the game, the specific players in the game, and the individuals who are playing. The content changes are based on the emerging needs of the City. The players are randomly slotted from different parts of the City. And the participants are changing, individually growing and learning during and between each game.
It would allow each of us to approach it in our own ways.BAF/BG provide participants with a wide variety of negotiation patterns. We've seen "Collaborationists", people who promote a number of items early and strive to build consensus. We've seen "Kingpins", people who discuss and strategize and then use their money to make purchases and sway decisions at the end of the game. And while rare, we've also seen people who choose not to spend ANY virtual money as a signal to the City that they value fiscal restraint more than the funding of any specific services.
It would forgive misinterpretation-in fact, it might even encourage it.While BAF/BG are quite forgiving of misinterpretation, we certainly don't encourage it. Indeed, one of the key jobs of the facilitators are to identify potential misinterpretations and invite subject matter experts from police, fire, libraries, parks and other departments to answer questions from citizens.
It would not dictate.This is a subtle attribute, because all games "dictate" in a number of ways - the rules of the game, the resources available, the content (story) that drives the game, and so forth. I believe, though, that Koster was referring to the role of the game in "dictating" the actions (moves) of the players and the outcome of the game. In this regard BAF/BG score a perfect "10" - once you have money in the game, you can choose to spend it as you wish, including not spending it at all.
It would immerse, and change a worldview.You can't "change a worldview" without "reexamining assumptions", so I'm not entirely sure why Koster separated these concepts. However, he separated them, so let's explore how BAF/BG changes worldviews through two stories. In one session, a woman from an affluent neighborhood was advocating for increased library hours. She changed her mind, and everyone at the table needed tissues, after another woman explained why she needed support for the anti-graffiti project to reduce gang violence in her neighborhood. In other session, a staunch republican who vowed he never would support raising taxes joined his fellow citizens in supporting a $100M bond to repair city streets.

Is Buy a Feature and the Budget Game the Best Game Ever?

If you’re reading this far into the post I hope you realize that we’re not so full of ourselves that we truly believe that Buy a Feature and the Budget Game are the best game ever. Games are considered “ideal” or great in context and, as many game industry experts have pointed out for years, we play games until they become boring. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that there is only one (infinite) game that is the best game ever, and it isn’t Buy a Feature and the Budget Game.

That said (or read, if you’re picky), it is undeniable that Buy a Feature and the Budget Game are terrific serious games (ahem, collaboration frameworks) that are optimal for increasing civic engagement and creating actionable feedback for government officials.

But don’t take my word for it! I hope that you’ll read this post with enough skepticism that you decide to join us in San José on Feb 20th, 2016, as a Facilitator or Observer (register here). Create your own experience with these games, track me down, and let me know how you’d put on your game designer hat and mod these games to make them even better.

And in my next post, I’ll elaborate on my Agile 2015 keynote on why surveys SUCK and why games are better.


Clarifying Communication-Coordination-Collaboration Confusion

As social business software proliferates confusion over communication, coordination and collaboration prevents us from realizing the full power and benefits of each. In this post I’ll shed light on the meaning of these terms and provide you with a model that will help you make sound choices around various software platforms you can use for each.

Communication: a means of or the act of exchanging information. In this definition I’m thinking primarily of Searle’s speech act theory. Any software platform that claims to offer ‘Unified Communication’ is focused here.

Task Coordination: a recursive decomposition of a problem into smaller problems (tasks), the distribution of these tasks to workers, the completion of the tasks, the integration of results, and the confirmation of desired results. Think ‘project management’ or “Application Lifecycle Management” software.

Collaboration: Paraphrasing Wikipedia, collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Collaboration requires an understanding of the goal, clearly defined rules of engagement, an understanding of available resources, a means to manage resources, a means to keep track of progress towards the goal and voluntary participation. A key element of collaboration in human groups is that it is based on a small number of actors, typically 2 to 8.

Conteneo provides engines that power collaboration. Unified Communication and ALM software vendors often claim to power collaboration, but they don’t, which is why there is so much confusion in the marketplace. I suspect this is because they secretly aspire to be collaboration platforms, instead of being comfortable with their role in the enterprise software marketplace.

As an aside, I’ll note that the definition of a collaborative act is the same definition of a multiplayer, cooperative serious game, which is why games are the ideal collaboration tool.

These might seem like slippery, hard to understand concepts until you consider specific problems in organizational life.

Let’s consider a common challenge: prioritizing a project portfolio in a moderately sized organization – say 30+ people prioritizing 22 projects in 2+ locations. You might use a Unified Communications-vendor (WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, etc.) to present the portfolio, provide a forum for questions and answers, or otherwise enable broad discussions about the merits of specific projects, but “communication” is NOT a tool for actually choosing which projects to engage.

[unordered_list style=’circle’ animate=’no’]

  • The goal isn’t clear (discuss or decide?). There are no rules of engagement (oh – the blowhard is just dominating the meeting).
  • The resources are not understood (what’s the budget? Can we get more?).
  • The means to manage the resources or to allocate them&em;the rules of engagement&em;are unknown.

[/unordered_list]

I could list more problems, but why bother? We know that these meetings are so terrible that we do it only when forced. Which kinda kills that whole voluntary participation meme. So, ‘communication’ as means to ‘solving the problem of prioritizing a project portfolio’ isn’t an option.

The problem of prioritizing a project portfolio can be approached as project, so it is tempting to think of this as a coordination problem. And, the larger the portfolio, the more it should be managed like a project. You could, and probably would, create tasks in our ALM / project management tool like: ‘define the portfolio to prioritize’ or ‘schedule budget review meeting’.

But the actual act of prioritizing the portfolio is still not supported, so the ALM vendors can’t help us solve the real problem, and indeed, too many ‘tasks’ serve to obscure the actual work of prioritization.

What about a survey? Well, you could use a survey to solicit the priorities of the group and then watch in dismay the group ignore their own results once they start the real negotiations and discussions over the results of the survey. So, surveys won’t work, because they simply defer the (ideally structured) negotiations and discussions that are essential to prioritizing the portfolio.

The best way to accomplish the actual work of prioritizing the portfolio is to make it a collaborative activity. Fortunately, Conteneo offers a solution to this: Decision Engine (aka Buy a Feature – Buy a Project).

Now that we have the right framework (collaborative prioritization) and the right online platform (Decision Engine) we can tackle the right structure. Remember that group of 30 (or 50, or 100, or 300) people who wasted their time an online meeting? We’re going to instead organize these people in groups of 5 to 8 people, because real collaboration occurs in small groups. Each group will engage in a single forum, and then we’ll let Decision Engine analyze the results across the groups to help us identify the priorities.

Just to be clear, of course we need communication and coordination. Indeed, you can’t have collaboration without communication and coordination. The danger is that WAY too many organizations are struggling to solve their hardest problems because they continue to confuse communication, coordination and collaboration.


Facilitator Recruiting and Training for 2016 San José Participatory Budgeting Project

We’ve completed our third Sprint for the San José Budget Project! We’ve got the core functionality of the San José District 3 Participatory Budgeting web site up and running and are now turning our attention to building out our facilitator team (have you signed up? Well, get to it! Sign up here.).

In this post I’m going to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in managing the facilitation team for large in-person collaboration events, which I define as more than 100 people, and extremely large events, which I define as more than 500. We’re targeting 1,000 people for the in-person 20-Feb-2016 San José Citywide Budget, and 50,000 people for the online forums during the week of Feb 22nd, 2016, which is among the largest events we’ve ever produced, and (we think) the largest Participatory Budgeting program ever in the United States.

In case you missed it: 1st post.

Establishing Targets

Let’s focus on the in-person event, because it is typically more challenging from a logistics perspective. Each 9-person round table is organized with 7 participants, 1 Facilitator, and 1 Observer.

players at the 2014 Budget Games
San José, CA residents play Budget Games for the 4th year in a row to provide the City of San José with valuable information on their budget priorities.

We’re estimating 150 tables will be enough for the projected 1,000 participants for the in-person session on 20-Feb-2016. That’s a facilitation team of 300 people (2 for each table).

And that’s not enough. Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, will show up. Facilitators will get sick. Observers will have car trouble or forget the event. Which means you need extras. We’ve found having about 5 extra people for every 100 facilitators / observers is the right amount – in this case 15 people.

Because this event often deals with emotionally challenging content, we like to staff a special team of truly extraordinary facilitators who roam around the room helping other facilitators fulfill their duties. For this event we’re plan on having 20 roaming facilitators.

This gives us a target of about 360 people. Yeah, my math is wrong. I rounded up and then added a few more, because stuff “happens” and we want to be extremely prepared. Will we need 360 people? Probably not. Will we be glad we have more than we need? Absolutely.

Recruitment

The first step is recruiting facilitators. Casting a big net is good, but you’re going to catch the best fish in the right pond. We like fishing here.

Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architects. Our community of Certified Collaboration Architects is the best place to start looking for facilitators. They’re trained in our methods and many of them use this event to introduce their colleagues and friends into the power of collaborative, participatory budgeting.

Newsletter. Tami publishes a terrific newsletter each month. I know this because she tells me that our open rate is more than twice the average of corporate newsletters! Our latest newsletter focuses on the San José Budget Project and helps us recruit facilitators.

Social Media. Obvious. Of course. Just listing for consistency. We find LinkedIn and Twitter especially compelling.

Professional Organizations. We’re associated with a number of amazing professional organizations, including the Agile Alliance, the Scrum Alliance, the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, the National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation, the Product Development and Management Association, and other organizations affiliated with these organizations. Phew! It is quite a list, and what makes us happy is that the people within these organizations have really big hearts. Members of these organizations have ALL participated in prior Budget Games and will contribute again in 2016.

City of San José. The City has always supplied Subject Matter Experts and additional staff adequate to run the event. However, the magnitude of the February event means that we’ll be leaning on City staff to help. To minimize potentially damaging facilitation bias, we’ll be using City employees primarily as Observers.

Training

Making sure our facilitation team is properly trained is essential to the engagement. To accomplish this goal, we’ve collaborated with The Kettering Foundation to develop a ½ day training program that covers our collaborative Budget Investment process, Budget Games and Common Ground for Action.

Our training is organized around our “Know-Do-Have” model of training.

Know: We start with what we want facilitators to know, ranging from technical skills associated with managing our in-person and online technologies to software skills associated with facilitating / moderating group discussions.

Do: We’ve been practicing experiential learning / “learning-by-doing” for years. Indeed, we’re renowned for teaching multi-day workshops without ever using PowerPoint! The trick is to organize the “Knowing” around the “Doing” – a set of carefully designed activities that give facilitators confidence that they can do their job.

Have: We augment our training with a set of job aids / handouts that facilitators can use throughout the program and beyond!

You can find a full description of our training program and register here.

Practice

Facilitation is a (soft) skill that typically gets better with practice. So, we’re going to be organizing a lot of practice sessions over the next few months to give facilitators training. Time permitting, we’ll organize the practice to cover increasingly challenging situations, ranging from basic facilitation of a “normal” group of participants to more challenging facilitation experiences dealing with Wallflowers and Dominators.

Even if you’re not interested in facilitating at the San José event, sign up and we’ll include you in the practice sessions. You’ll be helping a great cause and you might like the process so much that you change your mind and join the facilitator team.

Recognition and Rewards

Facilitators give their time freely for this event, so we recognize them by including them in our formal report to the City of San José and by granting them extra Facilitation Credits that they can apply towards their Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architect status. It is a small gesture of thanks for an event that simply cannot be accomplished without their active involvement.

Oh – and they get a super cool T-Shirt. This year will be bright Orange!