I’m a Believer

As some of you know, we periodically invite others to contribute to Luke’s blog. Today’s post comes from Brett McCallon, an Innovation Games trained facilitator who worked with us at the January 29th San Jose event.

Sometimes, even when you already believe in something, it’s still possible to have a “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment.

I’ve been working with Luke and the Innovation Games team for most of the past year. My passion lies in helping people to learn how games like these can help them to do real, important work. I’ve taken Luke’s excellent facilitation class, I’ve facilitated (and played) games online. But I had never been to an in-person Innovation Games event until last Saturday (January 29th), when I facilitated table “J” at the San Jose Budget Games event.

I want to clarify: I didn’t doubt for a moment that Innovation Games would be effective in helping people work together to face that city’s budget shortfall, better understand the perspectives of their fellow citizens, and come up with actionable intelligence that would inform the city’s leaders as they face down a $110 million problem. But my certainty was purely analytical. What I wasn’t prepared for was the magical feeling of being at that table as the game was being played.

 

Table "J"

Table “J” at work/play.

 

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 costs 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.

Everyone’s initial conversations were friendly and respectful. I like to think that I kept my nervousness in check as I explained the rules: each player had $200k; they would have to work together in order to purchase most of the programs they wanted; they could only purchase a program fully (no “50% funding”); and finally, that we would eventually consider cuts to other city services if they so chose.

Almost immediately, we ran into problems–players began discussing programs they believed should be funded, and arguing about these priorities, but no one was putting down their precious pretend dollars. Finally, as one player insisted that a public restroom project simply mustn’t be overlooked, I said, “Ok–how much is it worth to you.”

At that moment, the table’s dynamic changed dramatically. Suddenly, players were wheeling and dealing, putting money down on their preferences, striving to convince other players of the righteousness of their priorities, etc. As bids began to settle down in four or five of the most popular programs, we reached our second point of contention. The players hadn’t managed to actually purchase a single program.

“Well, we’re never going to be able to afford any of these!” complained one. Disgruntlement threatened to spread. At this point, I passed out the other sheet, listing existing budget priorities that players could cut in order to free up new funds.

At first, this new wrinkle threatened further disharmony. As players read over the sheet, they didn’t like being limited to only these pre-selected programs as potential targets for budget reductions; they didn’t like the idea of having to delay libraries, reduce police or fire priorities, etc. in order to get what they wanted.

Clearly, they were taking this game very seriously, and fortunately, the game was designed in such a way that players had access to top-quality, relevant information, in the person of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These professionals, who volunteered their time to participate in this game, included not only the city’s independent budget auditor but also the police and fire chiefs. By providing detailed answers to questions on-the-fly, the SMEs ensured that our game reflected the real-world implications of our table’s funding/cutting decisions.

After the players had worked through some of the ideas on the sheet, we held a quick round of voting–there was support for delaying two library projects, as well as for reducing the number of firefighters per truck from five to four. In both cases, though, there were holdouts, and the rules required a unanimous vote in order to make any program cuts.

One player, the lone holdout on the fire truck staffing reduction, seemed almost bitter about the fact that public safety service cutbacks were listed, but that we had no opportunity to try reducing the cost of those services (police and fire pay and benefits packages, essentially). However, once the library delay holdouts were convinced, and voted to free up $1.7 million by delaying their priorities, our fire truck holdout changed his vote. Clearly, he was looking for his fellow citizens to show their willingness to give something up before he was willing to put aside his reasonable grievances and make cuts he found distasteful. And when he saw that willingness, and we were able to make that cut, suddenly a floodgate opened.

It’s worth noting that my table’s priorities and decisions were in many cases very different from mine, as were their experiences. Check out facilitator Gerry Kirk’s experiences in his post on the games, as well as his photostream from the event, below.

 

With $6.7 million in new funds available, the whole table began funding projects that seemed totally out of reach before. Improved funding for currently operating libraries, projects to support vital infrastructure like road paving–suddenly, frustration gave way to action. The team ended up funding 9 of the 17 projects with which they had been presented. But more importantly than that, they all felt a sense of unity–they were smiling, laughing, putting their extra funds into each other’s pet projects simply because they saw how important these projects were to the human beings across the table from them.

I have a four-year-old daughter, and there is literally no moment of the year I enjoy more than seeing her smile as she discovers Santa’s bounty on Christmas morning. As I sat at that table, I felt myself smile the same smile, watching engaged, involved citizens, from different walks of life, improve their shared sense of community by playing a single game together. I received a gift. I know it sounds hokey, but now more than ever, I believe.

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