San Jose, CA Community Leaders Budget Games Results

On Jan 29th, 2011, history was made when a diverse and highly motivated group of community leaders and engaged citizens from the City of San Jose played a specially designed Innovation Game® to provide feedback regarding their budget priorities to the Mayor’s office. In what has the potential to become a template for igniting a whole new kind of civic engagement through serious games, this second post of a three-part series shares event results and experiences from many of the participants, including community leaders, city officials, and Innovation Games® Facilitators. Be on the lookout for my third and final post, where I will provide ideas on how Innovation Games® can be used to help solve a variety of civic problems.


Background: Motivation and GoalsSJC Budget Games Prioritization

Like many cities, state and national governments, the City of San Jose, CA, is facing a significant 2011-2012 budget deficit. To quickly recap the motivations and goals described in my first post of this three-part series:

  • The Mayor’s office wanted to better understand the priorities of citizens regarding key budget initiatives to help inform the budgeting process.
  • The event organizers wanted to try Innovation Games® as a way to engage community leaders in giving feedback.
  • Community leaders, representing a diverse cross-section of the city, wanted to participate in the budget process.

At the outset, I’ll point that Mayor Reed thought this was a “huge success“. Read the rest of this post to find out why.



Detailed Event Design

While my first post outlined the design of the event, it didn’t provide details because we were still negotiating these details with the Mayor’s office. Now that the event is finished, we can provide the final event design.

  1. The Mayor’s office created a list of 18 funding proposals that community leaders could purchase using the basic game structure of the Innovation Game® Buy a Feature. The total cost of these items was $14,000,000. The list of items that we used in this game can be found here: funding proposals.
  2. Community leaders organized into groups of between 7 and 9 players, with 8 players/game as the most common configuration. Each player was given $200,000 to purchase items they wanted. This was a very constrained game, and Community leaders quickly determined that they couldn’t buy much.
  3. The Mayor’s office created a second list of budget cuts that the Community leaders could select through unanimous agreement to get more money. This list of potential budget cuts we used in this game can be found here: reduction proposals.
  4. The pricing and structure of items on either list cannot be adjusted (this is a standard rule for Buy a Feature games).
  5. One Innovation Games® Trained Facilitator and One Innovation Games® Trained Observer managed each group to minimize researcher bias and record key aspects of the negotiations.
  6. The game was played for 90 minutes.
  7. There was no requirement that any items were purchased or cut. The community leaders were in complete control of their virtual money.



The Dynamics of Play SJC Budget Games 1

It is very hard to convey the high-energy dynamics of an in-person Innovation Games® event. I’ve included a few photos throughout this blog post to convey some of the energy in the room.

We were also joined at the event by Elizabeth McClellan. Elizabeth is both a trained Innovation Games® Facilitator and a skilled facilitation artist. She was able to capture the dynamics of the event quite nicely. Here is an image she captured as the event began:

And here is another that represents the kinds of negotiations that were happening in full swing.



Results, Part One: Purchases and Cuts Tableplay

Innovation Games produce powerful, multi-dimensional results that enable organizations to take action on deep insights generated by the data. For Buy a Feature, these results include the purchases (what is important), the negotiations between players (why it is important), the education of players as they explore items (insights and ah-has) and the emotional bonds that form during collaborative purchases.

The easiest game results to understand are the preferences of the players as determined by their purchases. By looking at the bid patterns of players – who purchased what – we can determine key preferences. In the attached results file, you can see, on a per-game basis, the bids made by each of the players in the games. You’ll note that for certain items the bids are listed as uniform across the players in the game. This happens in two circumstances. The first is when the players agree to pool their money and purchase items as a team. The second is when the extremely fast-paced game produced bids and purchases faster than our team facilitators and observers could track.

As you may recall from the detailed design of the games, the players were also given a list of projects that they could cut in order to fund items they wished to purchase. The results of these cuts are also contained in the spreadsheet. We didn’t track individual choices on these cuts because it was a rule of the game that these cuts must be made unanimously.


Results, Part Two: Motivations and Negotiations, or Why These Purchases and Cuts?

As the players negotiated with each other to purchase or cut various projects, they revealed the deep motivations that were driving their behaviors. By analyzing these negotiations, we are able to better understand exactly why certain choices were made. Our corporate clients find these negotiations essential in making sound business decisions against the preferences. So has the staff of the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Reed and CEO Luke Hohmann speak to the participants before the games begin.
Mayor Reed and CEO Luke Hohmann speak to the participants before the games begin.

To illustrate the power of these negotiations, you’ll note that when exploring the detailed results 6 out of 12 teams decided to delay the opening of the South San Jose Police Substation by several months, saving the City of San Jose several million dollars. The most common reasons for this were that since the city does not enjoy the benefits of having this substation open now, delaying it would not hinder serious impact the residents.

11 out of 12 tables chose to reduce Fire Truck Staffing from 5 firefighters to 4 firefighters, saving the city an estimated $5,000,000. This is a challenging choice to make, as no citizen wants to put the safety of their families at risk. Fortunately, Fire Chief William McDonald was present and patiently answered several questions from citizens who were considering the cut (see his photo, below). Fire Chief McDonald helped everyone understand the ramifications of this potential decision.


Like many cities, the citizens of San Jose actively volunteer their time on a number of civic projects. One celebrated example in San Jose is the Community Rose Garden, where citizens have created a truly wonderful place to visit. Some of the items that were not purchased suggested that citizens have a greater understanding of what projects are likely to garner support from volunteers. For example, several tables that did not purchase the “Christmas in the Park” project suggested that this project may benefit from volunteers providing the funds necessary to keep this project alive.


sjcbudgetgames16Were these easy choices? No, of course not. I cannot stress that these choices were extremely tough for the community leaders who participated. This was a very serious game. And, quite frankly, I was concerned that the games could spiral out of control with players screaming and shouting at each other. Fortunately, the negotiations of all but one table were extremely civil, primarily because players were sitting face-to-face, in small groups. And, I’d like to add, the most contentious table eventually turned around when I reminded the players that their eloquent discussions would have little impact unless they actually made purchases or cuts to match their convictions.

Taking the time to read through the observations of the chat logs takes time (just ask Wako, our VP of Marketing, who read through pages of Observer notes). But it is worth it, as these provide key insights into the deeper motivations that guide purchases.


More Results: Education!

One of the potential criticisms of these games is that “ordinary” citizens cannot possibly possess enough knowledge to give useful, actionable feedback on budget items. To some extent, this is true: We can’t expect that every citizen possess the same level of wisdom, experience and understanding of the detailed analyses (financial, social and other analyses) of key budget items as the officials (from the city, the unions who represent city workers and others) who negotiate the budget.

TableKHowever, claiming that “ordinary” citizens cannot provide meaningful feedback on their perception of budget priorities is simply wrong. Our experience with the community leaders participating in this event was that they were extremely well-versed in many of the budget items. During the negotiations, many were able to reference key facts and figures as capable as an official in the room. This enabled players to educate each other during the course of play.

Of course, players regularly had questions about the impact of their choices. To ensure these questions were answered as accurately as possible, a variety of Subject Matter Experts were on hand to assist the players. These Subject Matter Experts ranged from Fire Chief William McDonald and senior officers of the police department to the head of the Library.


Fire Chief McDonald answers questions from San Jose residents.
Fire Chief McDonald answers questions from San Jose residents.

Consider, for example, the choice that many groups made in choosing to cut the Helicopter and/or reduce fire engine staffing from five firefighters to four. Many of these very tough choices were made after the players had a chance to talk directly with the Fire Chief or members of the police department. Of course, the converse is also true: Some groups that had considered making these cuts changed their mind after talking with these officials.

In all cases, the challenge of negotiating which items to purchase and which items to cut, and the ready access to Subject Matter Experts, enabled the players of these games to become far more educated on these items during the course of play.


Another important aspect of education is the willingness to change our point of view as we learn more about an issue. Simply put, like many Americans, I’m tired of simplistic points of view taken by people who affiliate themselves with a party. Instead of discussing issues openly, they take the easy road and just vote on “party lines”. A better choice is to discuss issues with an open mind. Doing so just might change your mind. A great example of this is this interview with Robert Benscoter, one of the participants, in which he states “I was able to get different points of view that actually altered a couple points of view”. This is one of the most powerful aspects of small group collaborative games.

The Results of Play: Emotional Bonds

As players struggle to convince other players to purchase or cut items, they share more than just the facts that are driving their choices. They share their stories. And it is these stories that enable the players to identify with each other at a level of humanity that is impossible to obtain through traditional approaches to market research.TallyingVotes

Eric Donkers, a Cisco employee who donated his time to facilitate one of the games, noted in a conversation after the event that there were a number of reasons why players formed such powerful emotional bonds during the games. The most important reason was cited earlier: Players sat in small tables, in relatively close physical proximity to one another. The Innovation Games Facilitation team also played a significant role in the event. Our facilitators are trained to manage the flow of the negotiations, encouraging quiet participants to share their stories, while even-handedly guiding overly dominant players to give others a chance. The limited funds that were distributed to each player also encourage full participation: Even the most vocal player cannot spend someone else’s money. Eventually, arguments to convince someone to spend their money a certain way eventually give sway to actually listening to another player outline their own motivations for spending money.


A Not So Surprising Result… Fiscal Restraint

In a Buy a Feature game, our trained facilitators neither encourage or discourage players from spending money. Instead, facilitators work to ensure that players are spending their money on the items that are most important to them. By engaging in these conversations, we learn what is really motivating players, and how items must be shaped to deliver the high impact or best (business) value).

In the San Jose City Budget Games, several tables elected not to spend all of their money, even after making tough budget cuts. At first, this might seem a bit surprising, especially since this was “play” money. However, experience with virtual currencies suggest that people behave much the same way with virtual currency as with real currency. In these specific games, the citizen-players of San Jose, CA were very clear that they wanted to demonstrate fiscal restraint. Some tables were quite proud of the fact that they were not going to spend their money. Perhaps we need more ordinary citizens who show good financial restraint in leadership positions.


Were the Results Gamed?

“Gaming” a game is a pejorative term that suggests that players are not playing by the rules and that the outcome is not fair. In the case of these games, “gaming” the San Jose budget games would mean that the qualitative research results we’ve obtained are not actionable because of any or all of the following:

  • The results of the games were skewed by the choices presented to players
  • Items were described in a way to intentionally motivate certain purchases
  • Subject Matter Experts intentionally provided misleading information
  • Facilitators guided players to certain pre-determined outcomes
  • Observers did not accurately record or represent the negotiations of the players

As a member of the Qualitative Consultants Research Association, I can assure you that we did everything in our power to ensure that these negative outcomes did NOT occur. We believe that the results we obtained are actionable and that they fairly represent the interests and preferences of these community leaders.

Of course, if you’re unhappy with the results, I invite you to create your own games.


Results and Observations From the Facilitation Team

While I have focused my discussion of results on the players, the players were not the only participants. Our facilitators felt that this was a powerful and humbling experience. John Hornbaker, for example, tweeted that he was “humbled by the San Jose woman I met today: her goal is for 1–ONLY 1–kid in EACH BLOCK in her neighborhood to go to college”.

Gerry Kirk, who joined us all the way from St. Ste Marie in Canada, blogged about his experience as an observer, writing, “the passion people have about their city was evident, the options they had to choose from mattered. They struggled between choices, like funding a children’s health initiative versus a fund for community-based organizations.” Read the rest of Gerry’s blog here.

Tom Grant and Gerry Kirk, one of the facilitator and observer teams for the event.
Tom Grant and Gerry Kirk

Brett McCallon, who was singled out in the debrief session by a player at his table for his excellent facilitation skills, noted that his experience was “magical.” Read about Brett’s experience here.

Tom Grant, a Forrester Analyst who covers Product Management, noted that the design of the games illustrated that teams who had a strong vision for the city were able to purchase projects with greater clarity and certainty than teams that didn’t. This has direct parallels to those of us who work in and for product companies, as Tom outlines here.

Members of the Mayor’s staff who were present at the games also noted that they were also moved by the experience and encouraged that they received feedback that they wouldn’t have received through other forums. “Having this understanding won’t make the choices and tough decisions any easier, but it will serve as a good base from which the community can engage with the City, not only to overcome the challenging times ahead but also to seek lasting solutions to the structural issues which are affecting the City’s financial health,” said Neighborhoods Commissioner Mauricio Astacio.

Budget and Policy Analyst Antonio Guerra remarked the city often hears about the importance of programs like libraries through the organized group like “Friends of the Libraries,” but not about issues like road maintenance. More importantly, like those of us in business, city leaders find it hard to make choices that pit short-term, often less costly, improvements against long-term, capital-intensive, structural improvements. However, when playing this game, citizens demonstrated a remarkable ability to focus on important future investments. Guerra continues, “We get the occasional email about a pothole, but streets don’t vote. No budget cut is easy, but pavement maintenance is easier than most. Yet, at a very high $1,000,000, pavement maintenance was picked to fund by 83% of the tables.”


The Best Result? Action!

Although we’ve completed our games, the hard work of creating the 2011-2012 City of San Jose Budget continues. We’ve provided our results to city leaders, and they have told us that these results will be used to help them in creating the budget. This is, in our eyes, the best possible result of our games. They enable people to take action on the insights generated in the games.


Thank You…


I’d like to once again thank the Innovation Games Facilitation team. You’re an amazing group of people of trained professionals. I’d like to thank Avaya for sponsoring this event. I’d like to thank ARC for helping to defray the cost of printing materials.

The Innovation Games teamThe Innovation Games team


Stay tuned for my next post, as it will detail some ways in which you can get involved. In the interim, explore our website. Read blogs and posts about the games. Take a class. Play.


Addendum: Game Materials

The following game materials were used at this event.

13 Responses to “San Jose, CA Community Leaders Budget Games Results”

  1. This is an excellent report. A hat´t off to Luke and the whole team who developed and delivered this session.

    I just don´t understand why more public entities are not prepared to engage their key stakeholder, the public, in these types of sessions.

    Keen to link up with people in SE UK / Londo who might be interested in proposing this to local bodies because they seriously need it!

  2. […] On January 21, 2012, more than 100 community leaders from San José, CA, played a specially designed version of Buy a Feature, dubbed Budget Games, to reveal their priorities for the City of San José’s 2012-2013 budget. This is the second year that the city of San José, CA, has worked with The Innovation Games® Company to bring citizens, community leaders and city officials together for a priority setting session to kick off the six month budgeting process. (Read about last year’s results here.) […]

  3. […] On January 21, 2012, more than 100 community leaders from San José, CA, played a specially designed version of Buy a Feature, dubbed Budget Games, to reveal their priorities for the City of San José’s 2012-2013 budget. This is the second year that the city of San José, CA, has worked with The Innovation Games® Company to bring citizens, community leaders, and city officials together for a priority setting session to kick off the six month budgeting process. (Read about last year’s results here.) […]

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