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.


Collaboration at Scale: The 2016 San José Participatory Budgeting Project

At the Agile 2015 conference I challenged the Agile community to build on the core value of Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation to tackle technical and wicked social problems on a global scale. And we’re making progress! Participatory Budgeting, Deliberative Decision-Making Forums and other forms of civic engagement are increasing, with more cities and governmental institutions leveraging these techniques and inviting more citizens to participate.

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.

I’m pleased to announce that based on our past succes producing Participatory Budgeting events for San José, CA, in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, Conteneo and the Every Voice Engaged Foundation have been selected to lead two Participatory Budgeting programs for the city of San José in 2016. Both programs will leverage Conteneo’s online and in-person collaboration frameworks to provide a combination of intimacy and scale, along with other tools to help make these programs a success.

In this inaugural post, I’ll share an overview of the programs, along with details about how we’re partnering with Nearsoft to implement them using Agile methods! I’ll be sharing more details each week and letting you know our progress on the technical, social, content, marketing and other fronts. Keep reading, as we want you to get involved!

Program Overview

We have two participatory budgeting programs planned for the City of San José in 2016 [Note: These dates have been updated since the original post as the city changed the date]:

[ordered_list]

  1. District 3 Participatory Budgeting (#d3decides): Nov. 2015 to Apr. 2016
    This project will emphasize citizen input, soliciting ideas from residents using an open-source mapping application for crowdsourced info-gathering,  “Shareabouts“, shaping these ideas into projects, and then using Decision Engine to allow residents to directly prioritize how the city will spend $100K.
  2. Citywide Budget Engagement: Feb. 20, 2016 and the week of Feb 22, 2016
    This project will emphasize scale and building for the future by using Decision Engine to engage residents in prioritizing how the city should invest the revenue from a ¼ cent sales tax that is projected to raise approximately $36M. We’re targeting a whopping 1,000 people for three in-person sessions on Feb. 20, 2016 and an incredible 50,000 people to participate online the week of Feb 22nd, 2016.

[/ordered_list]

It’s heartening to see how San José is committed to building and expanding on the prior successes of our joint work on participatory budgeting. For example, the District 3 program extends San José’s previous work through the inclusion of Shareabouts (very nice!) and the second program gives Conteneo a chance to flex our scalable systems’ muscles by targeting the largest online Participatory Budgeting program ever tackled!

Collaboration at Scale Means Many Small Groups

All of Conteneo’s technologies are based on the fact that humans collaborate in small groups of 2 – 8 people. So, when we say that we’re targeting 1,000 people in-person and another 50,000 people online, what we’re really saying is that we’re targeting 125 – 140 groups of people collaborating in-person and 6,250 – 10,000 groups of people collaborating online.

Direct and Indirect Participatory Budgeting

An especially nice feature of these programs is that collectively they meet the narrow and broad definitions of Participatory Budgeting.

The District 3 project meets the narrow definition of Participatory Budgeting, which requires residents to directly control how resources (mostly financial budgets) are allocated to projects.

72-Frequently-Asked-Questions-about-Participatory-Budgeting-EnglishThe Citywide Budget Engagement project meets the broader version of the United Nations definition of Participatory Budgeting: “a mechanism (or process) through which the population decides on, or contributes to, decisions made on the destination of all or part of the available public resources.”

I’m rather conflicted about the need to make these distinctions. My colleagues at the Participatory Budgeting Project appear to be quite adamant that the only valid definition of Participatory Budgeting is the first. Unfortunately, my experience is that most “direct control” programs are dealing with relatively small amounts of money, typically a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars, given the total size of budget in question. This is not a methodological flaw, but instead reflective of the novelty of Participatory Budgeting. Still, it has me concerned that this could restrict the impact of Participatory Budgeting through an illusory form of engagement: direct control of inconsequential sums of money, instead of substantial influence on highly impactful sums of money.

We can contrast this with our experience in San José, in which residents have routinely grappled with choices of much larger magnitude. For example, in 2014 residents considered initiatives such as 120 Sworn Police Officers for $25M or Expanding Branch Library Hours for $4.6M with budgets of as much as $64M. Not only are these amounts are often 10 times larger than those in direct control programs, our results have shown that San José has indeed made final budget choices in accordance with residents feedback. I attribute this to superior data: Like the senior executives of our corporate customers, when elected officials are provided with actionable data, they take action.

These distinctions, which seem so important now, might not matter at all over time. As residents and elected officials become more comfortable with Participatory Budgeting, the amounts of money put under direct control appears to be increasing. This is a good thing, provided that we continue to put equal emphasis on involving a broad cross-section of the population (more on this later).

For now, we prefer the United Nation’s more inclusive definition of Participatory Budgeting as this is more congruent with our values and the values of the Agile community.

Kicking Off!

Kicking off a project is a misleading team: It implies that there is a single meeting that represents the magical kickoff. In reality, most project kickoff meetings are the result of several smaller threads being woven together into a rope: a few emails here and there and some phone calls exploring options and building on prior results that come together for the kickoff.

Our project was no different: We started exploring options with City staff in October 2015. After several emails, a few meetings, and some phone calls, we reached an understanding of the City’s goals and confirmation that our team would be the right team to deliver them. We formalized key parameters of the project in a letter of agreement. I was especially impressed with the Agile contracting on the part of the City and how readily they’ve embraced the notion that Agile contracts are for establishing goals and agreeing on processes and how a backlog is the better place to manage work.

In parallel, Conteneo engaged with Nearsoft, a partner we’ve used in the past for development. We developed a series of one-week Sprint themes and deliverables based on clearly defined “chunks of value”. We didn’t waste our time with points-based estimating, because we had zero experience with some of the tools we knew we wanted to use. (See my presentation on the Shapes of Projects to understand chunks).

For example, none of us had any experience using Shareabouts, and given that the tool is no longer being actively supported by OpenPlans, we had no other plan other than asking the development team to just jump in and see what they could do. As it turned out, Shareabouts was in really good shape, and the team had it up and running in a few days on Heroku. This has allowed us to move forward items in our project plan, deliver working software right from the very first Sprint, without fretting about estimates that would not provide any value or materially change our intentions. It also helped that the team was not pressured to do something unnatural, like make an estimate on technology they’ve never used!

We’ve also enjoyed sharing Agile practices with the City. For example, last Friday I sat down with two city leaders on adjusting and improving the content and flow of the website. When I explained that we were going to work together and make the changes live, on the website in tiny steps, in a process that agilists like to call “pairing”, they were genuinely excited about getting to work. And yes, except for a few of the more complex changes, we just made the changes that we needed to make in real time.

Multidimensional Engagement

At Conteneo, we believe in multidimensional collaboration. Whether you’re producing online forums using our cloud-based collaboration engines, or in-person forums using pictures of trees, boats and Stattys, we provide the best collection of frameworks for tackling technical and wicked problems. For both projects, San José will be leveraging Conteneo’s online and in-person frameworks, and in future posts I’ll outline our plans and results.

However, multidimensional engagement means more than just providing structures and processes. It means developing an understanding of the participants and making sure your team is meeting their needs, including the languages used in forums.

A significant percentage of San José’s population speaks Spanish or Vietnamese as a primary language. To support these people, we’re going to be developing multilingual materials and leveraging and expanding our global network of Certified Collaboration Architects. As it turns out, we have a fairly sizable number of Spanish-speaking facilitators. We’re going to need to recruit more actively for Vietnamese-speaking facilitators. Click here to join the facilitation team.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

Here are some of the lessons that we’ve learned in our first two Sprints.

You need developers. At present, there are no really solid, off-the-shelf solutions for implementing Participatory Budgeting programs. If you’re going to tackle a sophisticated project, you’re going to need developers.

You need project / program managers. I don’t really care what you call them, but you’re going to need a person who is driving the project. I think of these people as providing positive energy to a system that needs it.

Use Agile. We’ve known for decades of the positive emotional power that working software, delivered in chunks, has on all stakeholders,  the development team included. We proved it again: In collaboration with San José’s IT Staff, Nearsoft and our team, we had working software and our first resident-submitted idea in just 9 days!

Collaborate. That word is everywhere for a reason: You will not be able to get a project of this magnitude done this quickly on your own. In addition to San José, Nearsoft, Every Voice Engaged and Conteneo, we’ll be leveraging our global network of Certified Collaboration Architects and The Kettering Foundation. We are are in discussions with people like Jason Putorti. I’ll explore the collective that is creating this awesome initiative and how you can join us in my next post.

Big Goals Inspire! I don’t know of any program that has established the goal of engaging 50,000 residents in one week in collaborative forums. It is inspiring because we know it will be hard!

As some of you may recall, that at Agile 2015 I talked about engaging 20 million facilitators to engage 200 million people. Our 2016 project with San José will help us jump that curve! Stay Tuned!