We Played MORE Than Two Games – And Changed the World!

Dear Agile 2016 Attendees –

In my Agile 2015 keynote, I challenged the Agile Community to change the world by playing two games. With the help of the Agile Alliance, the Scrum Alliance, Agilists around the world and a whole bunch of other people, Every Voice Engaged Foundation was able to accomplish a whole lot! Here is a brief summary of what we accomplished since August of 2015.

Completed: We produced a very large Zero-Based Budget Participatory Budgeting project for San José, CA in February of 2016. This project enabled the City to better allocate more than $63M in funding for Neighborhood Services (report here). This project is a terrific example of how San José, CA continues to experiment with various forms of Participatory Budgeting for dollar amounts that are quite significant. We are presently hoping to expand this to get City employees involved in the process because we think they would have excellent insight on the best way to allocate reallocate funds within a budget.

Completed: We produced www.d3decides.com, a project in which residents of District 3 were given $100,000 in funding. Residents submitted ideas, shaped them into proposals, and selected the funds. If you like Product Box, you’re going to love watching the videos of residents pitching their products: http://d3decides.com/phase-four/. This project also enabled us to extend Buy a Feature to enable single-player mode on smart phones, dramatically increasing our ability to engage residents.

Completed: We wanted to see if we could push the boundaries of Participatory Budgeting, so we gave $500 to the Sunnyvale Middle School (grades 6,7,8) under the condition that the kids were in complete control of the funds. They used our software platforms to create project ideas, shaped them into proposals and then selected them. The winning project surprised all of the adults: replacing an existing water fountain with a new model that could refill water bottles (better for the environment ;-).

In-Flight: We’re presently producing a project for San José, CA in which residents of a specific neighborhood of District 2 are determining how to spend $1M. Yup – that’s a pretty big chunk of change. We’ve completed the ideation stage. Details here.

In-Flight: We finished a whole slew of updates to Common Ground for Action, our deliberation platform we created in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. We’re in the midst of planning a big project for 18 members of the US Congress on Making Ends Meet (inequality), Immigration Reform, and Political Fix (getting American politics back on track).

Completed: We’ve trained more than 100 facilitators (this was pro-bono training!). And we’re going to KEEP on training people.

In-Design: We’re hoping to work with Kettering and other Communities to improve race relations with public safety (police) and the communities they serve. This is an especially sticky problem so we’re moving with respect and caution.

Finally, y’all know we’re crazy dreamers… so I’ll close this post by sharing The Democracy Machine, our vision of an expanded platform that integrates and extends our work in Participatory Budgeting and Deliberative Decision Making. Written by John Gastil with contributions from Luke Hohmann, Amy Lee from The Kettering Foundation, and others, we’re proud to have published this work in collaboration (there’s that word again! ;-)) with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Dream and Play On, my friends.

Learning to Deliberate: A Letter to Bloomberg, Schultz and Billionaires

It pains me when billionaires who are trying to make America better face the same challenges as ordinary citizens creating high-impact results that improve outcomes, especially when Conteneo and our community of Certified Collaboration Architects have developed solutions to these challenges through Deliberative Decision Making, Participatory Budgeting and other forms of scalable civic engagement.

Which is why I’m asking for your help in sending this post to Michael Bloomberg, Howard Schultz, George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and any other billionaire you know who seeks to increase civic engagement and high-impact, non-partisan collaborative problem solving. Let’s let them know that we’ve created the platforms they need to create the better world of our collective dreams.

Michael Bloomberg Wants a Better Government

On Mar 7, 2016, Michael Bloomberg published this essay outlining why he will not be running for President. In his article Mr. Bloomberg outlined several goals, including:

I’ve always been drawn to impossible challenges, and none today is greater or more important than ending the partisan war in Washington and making government work for the American people — not lobbyists and campaign donors.

“Making government work for the American people” is at the core of our philanthropic work at Every Voice Engaged Foundation, so I immediately emailed David Shipley, the editor listed at the bottom of the article. I shared  Conteneo’s partnership with The Kettering Foundation in creating the first platform for scalable deliberative decision making modeled on the process pioneered by Kettering. Given that Brendan Greeley had previously written about our efforts implementing Participatory Budgeting in San José, CA, I thought David would reply to my email. A week later I’ve not heard from David, which motivated this post, and my hopes that the global Conteneo community can help us reach David (my original email is contained at the end of this post).

Howard Schultz Wants Us to Deliberate

The momentum for better government keeps growing! The Mar 21, 2016 (print) issue of Forbes has this article about Howard Schultz Howard Schultz’s Stormy Crusades: The Starbucks Boss Opens UpThe article has this to say about Howard’s ambitions:

Now he wants Starbucks to be the place where people can get excited about voting again, where people can courteously discuss tough issues such as gun rights and race relations–and where “ we can elevate citizenship and humanity.”


The challenge facing Mr. Schultz is that simply asking people to “courteously discuss tough issues” is doomed to failure. The vast majority of people are not formally trained in the art and process of deliberation. It isn’t that they aren’t willing to engage. It is that they don’t know how. Putting this in terms Mr. Schultz can embrace, I might love a skinny Grande extra hot latte, but unless I have the right materials (coffee, milk), the right machine and the right process I’m not going to enjoy my steaming cup of goodness.

Engaging citizens in tough issues is exactly the same: We need the right materials (a discussion guide framing the issue being discussed), the right machine (Common Ground for Action, our software platform to support deliberative decision making) and the right process (the deliberation process captured within the software).

With these in place Mr. Schultz can turn Starbucks into a destination for deliberation!

We Need to Reform How We’re Approaching Immigration Reform

It is really sad that I’m likely to put the success of my company at risk by stating that we need to reform how we’re approaching immigration reform, but our corporate values of serving the world through advanced decision-making gives me strength.

We need to reform how we’re approaching immigration reform.

We need to adopt deliberative decision making as the foundation for exploring the complex challenges of immigration reform. We need to do this at a scale that is unprecedented. Since you can’t engage in deliberation on Facebook, we need to do this on Conteneo’s platforms (sorry, Mark).

And notice that I didn’t say that we need to be non-partisan, inclusive and all of those other platitudes that pundits like to spout. That’s because deliberative decision making and a properly framed issue guide includes, by design, a range of possible actions motivated by things that are held valuable among all of us. Kinda like saying that a good cup of coffee starts with a good coffee bean, right Mr. Schultz?

What You Can Do?

Help me reach your favorite billionaire. Tweet a link to this article. Forward the email I wrote to David Shipley from your account. Let’s make a small amount of collaborative noise so that we can enjoy, as Mr. Bloomberg suggests, the government we deserve.

Original email to David Shipley, 7-Mar-2016

David –
Like many Americans, I share Michael Bloomberg’s concerns about the terrific challenges facing our country (outlined here). At the heart of these challenges is the inability to deliberate on the wicked problems we’re facing.

Unlike most other Americans, I’ve done something about it. Working with The Kettering Foundation my company has created Common Ground for Action, the first platform for Deliberative Decision Making. This work builds upon the ground-breaking work I’ve done in Participatory Budgeting, a story covered by Brendan Greeley a few years ago (here).

The purpose of this email is to share this amazing platform with you in the hopes that we can use it to engage America in the kinds of discussions we must have in order to found common ground for action.

Start by watching this video produced by our development partner, The Kettering Foundation: https://vimeo.com/m/99290801. Really. Just 5 minutes. It provides you with an amazing overview of the platform.

Here is the rest of the story :-).

The Kettering Foundation frames wicked social problems for public debate and problem solving. They’ve got an in-person process for deliberation that they deliver through www.nifi.org. To frame an issue they create an issue guide which identifies three or 4 unique options or strategies for solving the problem (not just “yes” or “no” – but truly different perspectives). The scope of Kettering’s focus is quite impressive: They’ve built more than hundreds of issue guides on immigration reform, healthcare reform, education reform, resolving the national debt to name just a few of the categories that exist.

I’ve attached a few issue guides for your review [note: these are available at www.nifi.org]. I believe the format of these issue guides could provide a good model for some of the problems Mr. Bloomberg wants us to tackle.

But of course reading an issue guide isn’t building common ground. For this, you need a deliberative forum, a carefully controlled process in which a group of people consider an issue by reviewing different options (or strategies) as to how it could be solved.

Each strategy, in turn, is framed in terms of a set of actions that could be taken that are congruent or supportive of the strategy. Each action, in turn, has a set of drawbacks that must be considered if enacted. By thoughtfully – through deliberation – considering options, actions and drawbacks – participants develop an understanding of where common ground exists within a group for concerted action.

We’ve put the process into a scalable web based collaboration platform that embodies and leverages this process in the context of our proven techniques for collaboration at scale. As participants progress through the platform we give them visualizations of where common ground exists within the group. As opinions change through deliberation we update these visualizations in real-time.

When finished, the group has a clear understanding of where common ground exists for taking action on a complex issue – an excellent approach to managing wicked problems.

As you can imagine, identifying where common ground exists within a group of people, and at scale, helps create far better decisions and faster, more thorough execution.

I hope you found this email useful enough to share with Mr. Bloomberg in an effort to help us scale deliberation and identify the common ground for action so sorely needed in our country.

Budget Puzzles Considered Harmful

In my last post about Participatory Budgeting I discussed why surveys suck when used as a tool to understand budget priorities. But there is game-related evolution of surveys, so-called “budget puzzles”, that are even more harmful than surveys because they create intense feeling of despair and harden political opinion. In an era of increasingly partisan politics, budget puzzles are making things worse, not better. What’s especially sad about this is that it appears to be the exact opposite of the goals of the organizations who are promoting budget puzzles. In this post, I’ll elaborate on why budget puzzles are considered harmful and show how collaborative participatory budgeting is the superior approach.

San José Participatory Budgeting.

San José, CA Participatory Budgeting. Messier than a solo puzzle? Yes – and worth it!

Budget Puzzles in Action

I define a budget puzzle as an interactive simulation in which a solo player strives to complete the typically nearly impossible task of balancing a city, state or national budget.

An example of a budget puzzle is the New York Times Budget Puzzle, in which you attempt to balance the national budget by considering various combinations of spending reductions and revenue increases. Spending reductions are grouped in areas such as Domestic Programs and Foreign Aid, Military Spending, Health Care, Social Security, Existing Tax Reforms, while revenue increases (which are always fees or taxes) are identified as modifications or new choices.

Let’s consider three admittedly broad approaches to trying to solve the puzzle: one emphasizing what might be considered stereotypically conservative choices, another more liberal, and third a balanced mix of choices that attempts to affect every area of the budget. In this first pass, I’ll try and keep the choices “moderate” and explore the results. If possible, I recommend that you try the puzzle yourself before reading further.



[table_cell_head] Conservative [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Liberal [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Balanced [/table_cell_head]



[table_cell_body] As a moderate conservative, I see that capping medicare growth, raising the age for social security, changing how we measure inflation and enacting medical malpractice reform saves about $71B, leaving me $347B over budget.  This has me thinking hard about cuts to military spending, but I don’t make them.[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] As a moderate liberal, I too might raise the age for social security, but I’m going to focus on the military, reducing nuclear arsenals, navy and air force fleets, and troop levels. This saves nets me $102B, leaving me $306B over budget. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] As a moderate who believes that all areas of the budget must be reduced, I make a few choices in every area. I cut some domestic programs, reduce the size of the federal government, raise social security and medicare eligibility, and so forth. I also considered various tax increases. In my experiment I was able to save $173B – less than half of the $418B I need to save. [/table_cell_body]



[separator type=’transparent’ color=” thickness=” up=” down=”]

Curiously, the moderate approach generated the best results! Ultimately, though, every approach failed. None of the “moderate approaches” was able to get the job done. Now, you can argue that this is OK — that the benefit of interacting with the budget puzzle was to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem and how hard it will be to solve it.

The problem is that most will have the impulse to try again. After all, thanks to video games, we’re used to “failing”, getting a new life, and trying all over again. According to video game designers, this is (always) good! I learned something even though I failed.

I was given the task to balance the budget, so dammit, I’m going to try again. And since I’m a solo player, with no need to justify my ideas or opinions with anyone else, and no requirement to actually think about the feasibility of the choices I’m making, I’m going to solve this puzzle.

Budget Puzzles Harden Political Will

What I learned is that being moderate isn’t going to work. I have to be extreme. Hey, that’s OK, right? It is just a puzzle and I’m not really doing anything that matters because I’m “playing a game”. That makes a bunch of choices easier.



[table_cell_head] Hardened Conservative [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Hardened Liberal [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Balanced [/table_cell_head]



[table_cell_body] As a hardened conservative, I start by choosing every possible savings associated with both Health care and Social Security. This doesn’t even get me half of the way to my goal, so I choose every possible cut in Domestic Programs and Foreign Aid. Now I’m making real progress! I’m just over half. So, I keep going! I add a National Sales Tax. I don’t fully reach my goal without raising taxes, so I grudgingly accept that I can save $323B by being a great conservative. And if my zeal for solving the puzzle overtakes me I might even raise a few taxes. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] As a hardened liberal, I start by cutting all of the military programs I can and raising taxes on the rich. Ha! Just this gets me to $316B in saving! I raise a bunch more taxes and let certain taxes expire and I get the magical hit of dopamine that tells me I’ve solved the puzzle. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] There really no need to try a balanced approach. I just randomly select a bunch of stuff to see which combinations of choices produce the right result, with no genuine investment in the outcome. [/table_cell_body]




Of course, all of this work produces an epic #fail: None of these choices could ever be implemented. More importantly, in our political system no one person gets to make these decisions. Solving the Budget Problem requires collaboration, negotiation, listening not just discussion.

After a solo attempt at solving the problem, the player leaves with hardened positions and is almost certainly less willing to engage in the collaborative dialogue and shared actions and compromises that are so desperately needed in today’s political landscape.

Winning the budget puzzle means losing the political process.

Conteneo’s Collaborative Budgeting vs Budget Puzzles

Our approach to Participatory Budgeting is neither a survey or a puzzle. Our approach is real-time, collaborative budgeting in which small groups of five to eight people work together to make choices that impact a budget.

Like our work in San José in 2011, sometimes these choices are not capable of fully balancing a budget in just one year. But, like the collective work done by San José over many years, these choices can create a path to a balanced and sustainable budget.

This table will help you consider the differences between collaborative budgeting, surveys and puzzles. Note that while in many cases the goals are similar, the process of trying to reach these goals can create exactly the opposite of the intended result.



[table_cell_head] Dimension [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Collaborative Budgeting [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Budget Survey [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Budget Puzzle [/table_cell_head]



[table_cell_body] Producer Goals?[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Develop data that elected officials can use to take action. Not just priorities, but the reasons behind the priorities and the conditions of acceptance for proposed actions.[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body]Identify priorities of the public. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Educate the public.[/table_cell_body]



[table_cell_body] Participant Goals?[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Collaborate with other citizens to solve hard problems. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body]Express my priorities. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Solve the puzzle.[/table_cell_body]



[table_cell_body] How do you “win”?[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] You win when you’ve found what organizational theorists refer to as an “equifinal meaning”. This isn’t consensus, per-se, but an agreement on a course of action. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body]Take the survey – I can express myself! [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Balance the budget.[/table_cell_body]



[table_cell_body] What is the impact?[/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Considerable! Collaborative Participatory Budgeting directly affects the budget of a city or other governmental institution. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body]Moderate. Survey data helps elected officials make decisions, but method bias leads to less actionable results. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] None – which means being completely silly is just fine.[/table_cell_body]



[table_cell_body] Negative Unintended Consequence [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] None. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] Citizens don’t explore the causal effects of their choices or build relationships with others. [/table_cell_body]

[table_cell_body] As shown in this post, puzzles harden political will and increase negative, partisan politics.[/table_cell_body]


The choice is clear: while surveys and puzzles may be well-intentioned, collaborative, real-time participatory budgeting the superior approach to generating actionable results.