Facilitator Recruiting and Training for 2016 San José Participatory Budgeting Project

We’ve completed our third Sprint for the San José Budget Project! We’ve got the core functionality of the San José District 3 Participatory Budgeting web site up and running and are now turning our attention to building out our facilitator team (have you signed up? Well, get to it! Sign up here.).

In this post I’m going to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in managing the facilitation team for large in-person collaboration events, which I define as more than 100 people, and extremely large events, which I define as more than 500. We’re targeting 1,000 people for the in-person 20-Feb-2016 San José Citywide Budget, and 50,000 people for the online forums during the week of Feb 22nd, 2016, which is among the largest events we’ve ever produced, and (we think) the largest Participatory Budgeting program ever in the United States.

In case you missed it: 1st post.

Establishing Targets

Let’s focus on the in-person event, because it is typically more challenging from a logistics perspective. Each 9-person round table is organized with 7 participants, 1 Facilitator, and 1 Observer.

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.

We’re estimating 150 tables will be enough for the projected 1,000 participants for the in-person session on 20-Feb-2016. That’s a facilitation team of 300 people (2 for each table).

And that’s not enough. Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, will show up. Facilitators will get sick. Observers will have car trouble or forget the event. Which means you need extras. We’ve found having about 5 extra people for every 100 facilitators / observers is the right amount – in this case 15 people.

Because this event often deals with emotionally challenging content, we like to staff a special team of truly extraordinary facilitators who roam around the room helping other facilitators fulfill their duties. For this event we’re plan on having 20 roaming facilitators.

This gives us a target of about 360 people. Yeah, my math is wrong. I rounded up and then added a few more, because stuff “happens” and we want to be extremely prepared. Will we need 360 people? Probably not. Will we be glad we have more than we need? Absolutely.


The first step is recruiting facilitators. Casting a big net is good, but you’re going to catch the best fish in the right pond. We like fishing here.

Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architects. Our community of Certified Collaboration Architects is the best place to start looking for facilitators. They’re trained in our methods and many of them use this event to introduce their colleagues and friends into the power of collaborative, participatory budgeting.

Newsletter. Tami publishes a terrific newsletter each month. I know this because she tells me that our open rate is more than twice the average of corporate newsletters! Our latest newsletter focuses on the San José Budget Project and helps us recruit facilitators.

Social Media. Obvious. Of course. Just listing for consistency. We find LinkedIn and Twitter especially compelling.

Professional Organizations. We’re associated with a number of amazing professional organizations, including the Agile Alliance, the Scrum Alliance, the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, the National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation, the Product Development and Management Association, and other organizations affiliated with these organizations. Phew! It is quite a list, and what makes us happy is that the people within these organizations have really big hearts. Members of these organizations have ALL participated in prior Budget Games and will contribute again in 2016.

City of San José. The City has always supplied Subject Matter Experts and additional staff adequate to run the event. However, the magnitude of the February event means that we’ll be leaning on City staff to help. To minimize potentially damaging facilitation bias, we’ll be using City employees primarily as Observers.


Making sure our facilitation team is properly trained is essential to the engagement. To accomplish this goal, we’ve collaborated with The Kettering Foundation to develop a ½ day training program that covers our collaborative Budget Investment process, Budget Games and Common Ground for Action.

Our training is organized around our “Know-Do-Have” model of training.

Know: We start with what we want facilitators to know, ranging from technical skills associated with managing our in-person and online technologies to software skills associated with facilitating / moderating group discussions.

Do: We’ve been practicing experiential learning / “learning-by-doing” for years. Indeed, we’re renowned for teaching multi-day workshops without ever using PowerPoint! The trick is to organize the “Knowing” around the “Doing” – a set of carefully designed activities that give facilitators confidence that they can do their job.

Have: We augment our training with a set of job aids / handouts that facilitators can use throughout the program and beyond!

You can find a full description of our training program and register here.


Facilitation is a (soft) skill that typically gets better with practice. So, we’re going to be organizing a lot of practice sessions over the next few months to give facilitators training. Time permitting, we’ll organize the practice to cover increasingly challenging situations, ranging from basic facilitation of a “normal” group of participants to more challenging facilitation experiences dealing with Wallflowers and Dominators.

Even if you’re not interested in facilitating at the San José event, sign up and we’ll include you in the practice sessions. You’ll be helping a great cause and you might like the process so much that you change your mind and join the facilitator team.

Recognition and Rewards

Facilitators give their time freely for this event, so we recognize them by including them in our formal report to the City of San José and by granting them extra Facilitation Credits that they can apply towards their Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architect status. It is a small gesture of thanks for an event that simply cannot be accomplished without their active involvement.

Oh – and they get a super cool T-Shirt. This year will be bright Orange!

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]:


  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.


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!