Engaging Citizens Through Games: San Jose, CA Budget Prioritization Games

Like many city, state and national governments, the City of San Jose, CA, is facing a significant 2011-2012 budget deficit. In this first of three posts on how Innovation Games® can be used in to engage citizens and improve democratic processes, I will outline the plans for a specially designed Buy a Feature game that The Innovation Games® Company will be producing for approximately 100 San Jose neighborhood community leaders on Jan 29, 2011. My hope is that community leaders, motivated citizens, and public service employees will find inspiration and ideas that they can leverage to create effective and meaningful conversations about the issues that shape our lives. I will also compare our approach to other games and puzzles that have been created to address similar problems, such as the NY Times Budget Puzzle, and the Next10 Budget Challenge. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our respective approaches, we can choose the approach that is most likely to produce actionable results.


Big Budget Deficits Are Big Problems

I’m not the right person to argue for or against the various reasons that our governments have incurred such big deficits. The reality is that we’ve got them. And we have to deal with them.

Which sounds easy. But we all know it isn’t.

Balancing San Jose’s budget will be a tense, arduous task that will involve significant negotiations between often competing for the interests of many constituents. Sacrifices and tough choices will likely rule the day.

Fortunately, Innovation Games® can help channel the maelstrom of emotions and ideas into a positive outcome.


Real Commitment? Or Just a Publicity Stunt?

Readers familiar with our processes know that we’re quite rigorous in our approach to selecting and designing games. We want to make sure that games and game semantics are applied to solve real problems. Our process is shown below.

The first step is gaining an understanding of the questions and goals of our client and what they will do with the answers. In this case, the Mayor’s office is our client, and they were clear that they wanted to better understand the priorities of citizens regarding key budget initiatives.

The Mayor’s office intends to use the results to help inform the budget process. While that might seem like a pretty high-level abstract goal, in reality, it is a fantastic goal. Until we play the games, we won’t know the citizen’s priorities. So, planning anything in advance of the results is irresponsible.

This is a great start. We have an administration who genuinely seeks input from community leaders. We have community leaders who want to provide this input. I know this firsthand because I attended a similar meeting in 2010. While this meeting was not run using games, it was clear that community leaders appreciated being as involved as they could in providing input to the Mayor’s office.

I’ll explain the selection and design of the games shortly. As for the participants, the community leaders selected for this event were just the right people to be playing these games.

Before going further, let me return to our first step in the process. I’ll be honest — when I first started working with the Mayor’s office, I was slightly worried that this might end up being some kind of a publicity stunt — the act of seeking input without a genuine commitment to act on it. Hey,  that happens. In business and in politics. And it sucks when it does.

Fortunately, I’m absolutely convinced that the Mayor’s office is approaching the games with an open mind. They’ve allowed me and my team to design the experience. They’ve worked hard with us over lots of emails and phone calls and meeting preparing and testing trial games. And they fully supported our design of having each group of community leaders managed by one of our professionally trained facilitators to minimize researcher bias (more on this in a bit). Fortunately, our network of facilitators is large enough that assembling the 30+ people needed for this event was as easy as simply asking for their help. (If you need help in designing or facilitating your games,  just ask us).


The Selection of the Game

The design of any game flows from the goals of the game designer. Since we design games to solve problems and gain market research insights for our clients, these goals are the questions of the client. In this case, the Mayor’s office has a specific question: What are the preferences of the citizens relative to specific budget initiatives? Since the city is facing a budget deficit, it is easy to see that these initiatives represent one form of a reduction or another. But simply asking people to make cuts wouldn’t make a fun game. And we only have time for one game.

Since the goals of the city deal with money, I was inclined to start with Buy a Feature and adapt it for this event.

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. Explore the results to learn what was purchased (the priorities!) and why these were important (the negotiations among players).

What makes Buy a Feature 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 agree that this item is important. 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 on a large number of small 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. What makes the game insightful is that you get to listen to how groups of people negotiate to purchase the most important items. You learn what and why–all in a fun game.

This is a big difference in how many people approach budgeting. In traditional approaches, you would find people offering a “10% reduction” in some service. Which is really easy to say yes to, because it is imprecise and the impacts are not clearly stated. In a Buy a Feature game each item is “whole and complete.” Indivisible. Either you purchase a feature or a government service or you don’t. All or nothing. No percentages. The difference between purchasing whole and complete items and taking fractions is really quite striking. It is trivially easy to argue for or against a 10% reduction in a service or 15% better performance on a given product dimension. It is a lot harder to argue for or against the addition of nine park rangers vs four anti-graffiti task force employees or keeping open three community centers.

Lastly, Buy a Feature is available in both in-person and online formats. This is important because if this initial in-person event is successful, we hope to scale this to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people playing online games.


The Design Of the Games

While the core elements of Buy a Feature seem to align, there is still one hurdle to overcome. The Mayor’s office frames changes to the existing budget as reductions. It has to, right? I mean, we have a budget deficit. So, if we’re going to balance the budget, we have to cut items. But this would not a fun game make, so I had to reframe the cuts as purchases. Here’s how I did it.


Step 1: Generating a List of Budget Cuts To Test

The Mayor’s office generated a set of budget cuts that they wanted to test. This is an important step. We can’t test every part of the budget, as that would take far too long. And testing certain cuts simply don’t make sense, as certain city services are required. I asked the Mayor’s office to keep the list to 12 to 20 items, which is the size for these kinds of games.

Step 2: Converting The Cuts Into Purchases

To convert the cuts into purchases, I imagined that all of the proposed cuts had been made. This would enable the virtual market structure of the game to work. Now, players would be purchasing the programs they wanted. To illustrate, suppose that one potential cut is eliminating six positions associated with pavement maintenance for $400,000. In the game, players will be asked if they wish to purchase 6 positions for $400,000.

Step 3: Distributing Money to Players

The next step is determining how to distribute money to the players. Since Buy a Feature is based on a virtual market, we normally distribute 40% of the total cost of all items evenly among the players. So, if the total cost of the items is $2,000,000, and there are 8 players, each player gets: ($2,000,000 total cost * 40%) = $800,000 game budget; $800,000 game budget / 8 players = $100,000 per player.  If an item costs less than $100,000, then a player can make a solo purchase (which is not common, but it does happen). Mostly, though, people must collaborate to purchase what they want.

This wouldn’t work for the city budget games. City governments just can’t print money. So, giving players 40% of the money is way too much. We could start with zero, but then the game isn’t fun because you can’t purchase anything. We need to solve both the initial amount of money and develop rules for how players can get more money.

I chose the following design. Players will be given 10% of the total at the beginning of the game. This is enough to purchase one or two items. To get more money, there is ANOTHER list of items framed as cuts that the players can select to get more money to purchase the items they want. Because a cut may affect one neighborhood more than another, we are going to carefully balance the players within a game to be representative of the different council districts and require that ALL players must unanimously agree on any cuts. We don’t require unanimous agreement on purchases.


So the design of the game is:

  1. We have a list of budget items that we suspect community leaders will want to purchase.
  2. Community leaders do not have enough money to purchase these items.
  3. We have a second list of budget cuts that community leaders can select to get more money.
  4. The pricing and structure of items on either list cannot be adjusted.
  5. Community leaders are placed into groups of 8 people. One Innovation Games® Trained Facilitator and One Innovation Games® Trained Observer manage each group to minimize researcher bias and record key aspects of the negotiations.
  6. Community leaders purchase what they can with a very small seed budget.
  7. Community leaders can get more money by enacting more cuts.
  8. There is no requirement that any items are purchased or cuts. The Community leaders are in control of their virtual money.

As expected, this design worked extremely well in our test and calibration games. Players negotiated over the items they wanted. Some cuts were made, freeing up items to purchase. Some proposals weren’t purchased. While we still have more work to do to finalize our event production, such as finishing the design of the special money we’ll be using for this event and the descriptions of the items, we are trending well for the games that we’ll be playing on the 29th.


Perhaps a Simpler Game Might Work Better

In my introduction, I promised a comparison with the NY Times Budget Puzzle, and the Next10 Budget Challenge. Each of these is an interactive, web-based application that allows you make a set of budget choices and shows you dynamic, real-time feedback on how well you’re doing as you strive to balance either the national or California state budget. Since I suspect there are a lot more of these interactive calculators available, I will discuss these as a general comparison to the game I designed above. I’ll call these “Budget Puzzles” and the approach I outlined “Budget Innovation Games®.” Here are some dimensions of comparison for your consideration.

Dimension Budget Puzzles Budget Innovation Games® Implications/Notes
Primary Goal? Education / Motivating Individual Action Research The goals of the puzzle games range from educating citizens on issues to motivate them to take action by submitting their choices to elected officials. However, in our perspective, neither of these goals relates to actionable research outcomes.
Our goal is primary market research. We seek to understand the preferences of community leaders so that elected officials can formulate a better city budget. We are not asking citizens to prioritize the budget.
Who Plays? A single person. A group of 5 to 8 people playing at the same time. This is the key difference in our approaches. Budget puzzles are designed to help a single person develop a point of view on how to solve the budget. This is radically different from the approach taken by our collaborative games, in which players collaborate in real-time to make choices.

This means that the budget puzzle games tend to be more scalable, in that our games require some form of an event to get people playing at the same time. Scalability, in this context, contrasts with the goal of gaining deep insights.

Pre-determined Goal Yes:
Your goal is to balance the budget.
Your goal is to purchase what you want.
This is another key difference in our approaches. In the budget puzzle games, you are presented with a clearly defined goal. You are presented with many different ways to achieve this goal, but the goal is nonetheless quite clear.The Buy a Feature game described in this post has a much less clear goal. And achieving it is harder. Unlike a budget puzzle, in which you can make hurried choices, in our games, you have to convince other people to join you. You actually have to justify your choices. And that’s a lot harder.
In-person or online. Online In-person or online. While the budget puzzles I’ve listed are online, I suspect that versions could be created for in-person use. This would be hard, though, as the online puzzle games provide very nice real-time, visual feedback on how well you’re doing towards reaching your goal of balancing the budget.

Buy a Feature, the game used as the foundation for this event is provided in both in-person and online formats. We’d have to adapt our online system a bit to make it work exactly as described in this post, but that would not be hard. (Contact me for more details if you want to do this).

Research Bias Bias exists in the choices presented to users. Bias exists in the choices presented to users and in how facilitators facilitate the games. Research bias exists in both approaches. You just can’t escape it.

In-person Innovation Games® introduce facilitator bias. We minimize this with multiple facilitators, all of whom are professionally trained.

Online Innovation Games® can be played without a facilitator, eliminating facilitator bias.

Information Bias Varying amounts of information is presented to the user to help them make choices. Like Research Bias, Information Bias also exists. How choices are phrased and presented to players can have a significant impact on the outcomes. All of the games I’ve seen strive to minimize information bias through the use of well-respected, neutral experts.

As a class, the online budget puzzles do a better job of presenting information to the user, with the Next10 Budget Challenge getting my vote for the best and most thorough presentation of information. I suspect that many players of the budget puzzles enjoy taking the time to learn more about each item.

In-person Innovation Games® suffer from such easy and compelling ways to present information. To compensate, we add Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to the event so that questions from players that a trained facilitator cannot answer can be answered in real-time. In the City of San Jose budget games, SMEs will come from the Mayor’s office.

Online Buy a Feature games can present information in many ways.

Information Overload Many items are presented. We limit the number of items to 20 to prevent cognitive overload. The budget prioritization games tend to present many more items than our Buy a Feature games. From an educational perspective, I think that this is OK, as you’re not really making hard, comparative choices in this games. Instead, you’re simply configuring a set of choices that let you get to the goal. Some people will do this well, while others will likely race through the activity to see how they can balance the budget without thoughtful consideration of the impact of their choices.

Buy a Feature is considerably different. In Buy a Feature, we want to hear people debate about the issues and deeply understand their purchases. So, we structure the games so that players are making tough choices. The challenge here is making sure that you don’t have too many choices. Too many choices produce cognitive overload and can prevent the game from reaching a stable state. (If you don’t believe me, think back to the last time someone asked you to prioritize a list of 60 or 80 items in a spreadsheet. Ugh).

Not to worry if your list of items you want to test is large. We have a number of sophisticated game design patterns that can handle large lists without introducing cognitive overload. But for these games, we want to keep the number of items to a manageable number.

As this table demonstrates, there are some clear differences between solitary puzzles and collaborative games. The approach that is going to produce the best result is based on your specific context and your goals. In my ideal world, players of our collaborative games would be invited to play a solitary puzzle before the collaborative game as a means to educate them on the options that may exist, and we’d extend this to thousands of online participants.


Your Next Move

Our next move is to finalize our preparations, play the games, and report our results to the Mayor’s office. And after that, I’ll be writing a few more posts.

Your next move is to consider how Innovation Games®, other serious games, and principles of Gamification can help improve political discourse and governance around the world. I look forward to hearing from you!


Thanks to…

I’d like to thank Paul Dunay, Global Managing Director of Services and Social Marketing at Avaya, for sponsoring the materials and supplies for this event, and to ARC (formerly Peninsula Digital) in Mountain View for donating printing services. I’d like to thank the San Jose City staff for their hard work in preparing for these games. I’d like to thank, in advance, the community leaders who will be playing the games. I’d most especially like to thank our team of facilitators who will be working at this event.


Addendum: Game Materials

The following game materials were used at this event.


14 Responses to “Engaging Citizens Through Games: San Jose, CA Budget Prioritization Games”

  1. This is really fantastic Luke!
    I am interested to see how it goes from a process point of view and also the results the session achieves. If only others would take the innovation games approach to create a far better society. I am interested to see if the UK Governments “big Society” project picks up on this ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Society ) as it would fit really well!
    Looking forward to the feedback!
    Good luck, Andi

  2. It’s sad that a couple of your foundational assumptions are not correct. Every city department was asked to cut their budget by 30% and that budget was to be turned into the city manager the day before this dog n pony show. If the mayor was truly interested in the community’s opinions and attitude, this game would have occured before the department head’s proposals. How much did the city pay you for this game? Last year another methodology was used and the mayor and the council gave lip service to the community’s concerns and failed to implement the ideas raised. This is just a big focus group to see what cuts they can get away with on their way to out sourcing and blaming others for their mismanagement. Sad to take good ideas like yours and use them for other means.

  3. Steve –
    First, let me state very clearly that the city did not pay myself, nor any of our volunteer facilitators and observers, any money. I’m very proud that all of our work was contributed pro bono. I can’t, of course, promise that all of our endeavors will be pro bono, but all aspects of this event were done at no charge to the city.

    I was also in attendance at the 2009 meeting, where citizens were asked to allocate nickels against budget items they felt useful. My understanding was the preferences identified by that exercise were used to help influence policy. We hope that our techniques will provide more actionable data.

    As for the assertion that this activity is just a big focus group, well, yes, there are certainly aspects of our games that resemble focus groups. However, our serious games tend to produce much richer results.

    As for the structure of the specific items, my next post will contain the list of items actually played.

  4. […] First, a brief explanation of how the game was set up: The game was designed as a variant of the Innovation Game(r) Buy a Feature. At each table, citizens from San Jose were provided with a specific, limited list of programs that they could “buy”. Almost all of these cost more than any one player was allotted, and some cost more than all players could purchase, even by pooling all of their money for that one priority. Players could decide to cut other programs, in order to free up funds, but to do so they had to vote unanimously. You can find all of the details in Luke Hohmann’s post about designing the game. […]

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