Budgets Are Not Broccoli (or, Why Surveys Suck)

In my last post on the San José Budget Games I promised a brief overview of why Surveys SUCK and why collaborative games are better. This expands on my Agile 2015 keynote and will help the Participatory Budgeting community in creating even more participation for our sessions.

Let’s start with a story. I was in Paris this week, teaching a master class on serious game design and attending Playcamp Paris. Produced with our partner, Raphael Goumot, a Black Belt CCA and owner of creagile.fr, we spent the entire evening discussing Participatory Budgeting, our Budget Games and our Budget Investor.

Through an amazing coincidence, Tarang Patel (an Agile specialist from Adobe and another Black Belt CCA) was in Paris. Tarang has personally facilitated San José Budget Games sessions in 2013 and 2014 and told this story:

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What is amazing about collaborative prioritization, in which citizens have to work together to purchase projects, is how collaboration can change the minds of the other participants. In 2014 our table was not interested in funding any items. And yet, near the end of the session, a girl from the youth commission who strongly believed in addressing what she felt was an increasing problem homelessness, invested a substantial sum of her money on a project designed to address homelessness. The other participants at her table really took notice and started to explore the issue. By the time they were finished, the table had changed their minds and joined together to fund this project.”

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This story is not unique. As near as we can tell, every single collaborative forum changes the opinions of the participants. Here is another story, this time from Laura Richardson:

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At our table one woman from an affluent neighborhood started the negotiations by purchasing code enforcement. She wanted to make sure the City was looking as good as possible. She changed her mind, however, when a mother from a less affluent part of the city described the dangers her children faced from gang violence — just walking to school wearing the wrong color jacket could leave her child harassed, beaten, or even worse. The emotional impact was visible because both woman were crying by the time the ‘negotiations’ were finished. The table quickly aligned on purchasing projects to designed to address gang violence.”

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We see similar outcomes in our platforms when used for prioritizing features in product roadmaps and project portfolios inside corporations: collaboration provides a forum for understanding complex issues and making better choices. Here is a story from my own experience in helping VeriSign prioritize a set of potential customer projects:

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One of the projects under consideration was a self-service support website, in which customers could form a community to post questions, share best practices and help each other configure and use VeriSign products. In every forum junior customer service agents would purchase this project because it promised to make their lives easier. And in every forum a more senior and experienced agent would gently explain that this project would actually increase the amount of work because every comment by a forum member would have to be reviewed and verified by a VeriSign employee. The reasoning was simple: VeriSign provides complex, sophisticated security solutions. Hackers and other nefarious types could provide incorrect advice to make it easier to exploit a website.”

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But Why Broccoli?

Let’s compare these stories about shared prioritization of a budget with broccoli. I happen to like broccoli. A lot of people don’t. And no matter how much time I spend trying to convince you that you should like broccoli, I’m not going to change your mind. And no matter how much time you spend trying to convince me that I shouldn’t like broccoli, you’re not going to change my mind.

Broccoli isn’t a budget. At one level, it doesn’t actually matter if you like broccoli, or you don’t like bananas. Conversations on these topics aren’t going to change your perspective and they certainly aren’t going to affect your job or your city.

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This is why surveys suck when you’re dealing with complex issues like corporate or city budgets. The results of the survey are subject to change once you start talking about the items with other people.

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This change is what draws people together instead of pushing them apart. In my next post, I’ll outline how surveys evolve from being something that just plain sucks to being something that is downright harmful.


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:
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  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.

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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.


San Jose Residents Play 4th Annual Budget Games

In January 2014, San José, CA residents had a chance to influence their city’s forthcoming budget by playing games. Representatives from San José Neighborhood Associations and the Neighborhoods Commission and Youth Commission joined 100s of their fellow residents  to share their perspectives and opinions regarding budgeting priorities for the City of San José. This year’s event was the fourth annual Budget Games, produced by Conteneo for the City of San José, and included, for the first time, online games to expand game play  to 100s more San José residents. (And was supported by Microsoft through  it’s donation of 100+ Surface Tablets for the event.)

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Putting the Fun in Participatory Budgeting
The goal for the Budget Games is the same as other participatory budgeting initiatives — provide citizens with the ability to participate in their government’s budgeting process and provide city officials with actionable insight as they make the difficult decisions about city resources.

Since 2011, Conteneo has produced a specialized version of its “Buy a Feature” game for the City of San José. These Budget Games have been used to engage neighborhood leaders regarding priorities for spending, tradeoffs, and budget cuts for the City’s annual $2.9 billion budget. During the second year of Budget Games, 80% of the recommendations generated by participants were adopted and integrated into the City’s budget.

“Resident input is critical to San José’s community-based budget process,” said Mayor Chuck Reed. “When we’ve had shortfalls, our priority setting session provided early input to help rank difficult choices.

“More recently, we’ve added police officers, restored funding for gang prevention and intervention, and opened shuttered library branches based on feedback from our community.”

2014 Results: Budget Matters
This year residents who played both the in-person and online games were given 24 hypothetical funding proposals and the budget expected from a proposed ¼ cent or ½ cent sales tax ($34M and $68M) and were asked to purchase the items that were most important to them. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) representing Police, Fire, Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, Libraries, Budget and other disciplines, answered questions related to proposals during the game, as requested by the players. The games were facilitated by Conteneo’s global team of Certified Collaboration Architects, who donated their time for the event.

Road repair, fire and police department staffing, funding of community centers and public library hours are among the topics that residents prioritized during the 13 in-person games and 21 online games. Analysis of game results revealed that residents of San Jose continue to be concerned about public safety, gang and crime prevention, and that game “purchases” correlate with the available budget. Residents who played the game with potential revenue from the larger tax increase purchased more expensive items, made more solo purchases and invested more in pavement maintenance and a contingency reserve.  See the final Budget Games Results here.

“Like many cities, San José continues to face difficult budget situations that require tough prioritizations with direct effects on San José residents,” said Luke Hohmann, CEO and founder of Conteneo. “In the past, these effects have included reduced community services, employee layoffs and pay cuts, and deferred maintenance to balance the budget.

“Along with the city, we strongly believe that residents should have a voice in this process since budget decisions can make a big difference in the quality of life for all members of the community.”

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Check out Luke Hohmann’s presentation to the City of San Jose on the results here.

To bring Budget Games to your community, contact Conteneo.

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