Building the Budget from Zero: Online Participatory Budgeting in San José,CA

Mayor Sam Liccardo and the San José City Council, in partnership with the Every Voice Engaged Foundation and Conteneo Inc., invite San José residents to participate online in a citywide participatory budgeting event during the week of February 22, 2016.OnlineForumsSanJose

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).

[button size=’small’ arrow=’no_arrow’ color=” background_color=” font_size=” line_height=” font_style=” font_weight=” text=’Join in!’ link=’http://everyvoiceengaged.org/sanjose-zerob/’ target=”]

 


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]

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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.

 


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.”

[/blockquote]

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:

[blockquote width=’100′ mark=’grey’]

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.”

[/blockquote]

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:

[blockquote width=’100′ mark=’grey’]

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.”

[/blockquote]

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.

[blockquote width=’100′ mark=’grey’]

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.

[/blockquote]

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.