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]

[table_row]

[table_cell_head] Conservative [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Liberal [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Balanced [/table_cell_head]

[/table_row]

[table_row]

[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]

[/table_row]

[/table]

[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]

[table_row]

[table_cell_head] Hardened Conservative [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Hardened Liberal [/table_cell_head]

[table_cell_head] Balanced [/table_cell_head]

[/table_row]

[table_row]

[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]

[/table_row]

[/table]

 

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]

[table_row]

[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_row]

[table_row]

[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_row]

[table_row]

[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_row]

[table_row]

[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_row]

[table_row]

[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_row]

[table_row]

[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]

[/table_row]
[/table]

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

 


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!