The hour-long online “zero-based” budgeting sessions will provide residents with an opportunity to get involved in their government and community and impact the city budget.
How to participate
Residents may participate in collaborative forums with their neighbors from a laptop or desktop computer, by logging into a forum at time that works for them. To find available times (from 8AM to 8PM, February 22-26, 2016) and participate, go to http://everyvoiceengaged.org/sanjose-zerob/.
Starting with a budget of $63,600,000, residents will be able to collaboratively reallocate funding for 30 city programs, including such line items as graffiti abatement, parks and urban renewal and more. Residents may also preview the 30 city programs and their current funding level here: 2016-2017 Budget Engagement Exercise (PDF Download).
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.
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]
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 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_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]
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.
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:
We have a list of budget items that community leaders can fund (the “green sheet”).
Community leaders do not have enough money to purchase these items.
We have a second list of budget cuts or tax increases that community leaders can select to get more money (the “red sheet”).
The pricing and structure of items on either list are set by the City and cannot be adjusted.
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.
There is no requirement that any items are purchased or cuts. The Community leaders are in complete control of their virtual money.
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 Attribute
Buy 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.