San José Citizens Play Innovation Games to Prioritize 2012-2013 Budget Proposals

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.)

San José, CA, like many cities across the U.S., is facing another year of budget shortfalls, with an anticipated deficit in the General Fund for 2012-2013 of $80.5 million. The city faces difficult choices as it starts the budgeting process and wanted input from its citizens on what city programs and services matter, along with feedback on cost-savings and revenue-generating proposals to fund those services. Not satisfied with surveys and other traditional market research techniques (click here to read about Feedback Fatigue), the Mayor’s Office asked The Innovation Games® Company to once again create and produce a serious game that would enable the city to get actionable, rich information from its citizens.


Budget Games vs. Buy a Feature

The Budget Games played by San José citizens work much like a typical Buy a Feature game — with one difference. In a traditional Buy a Feature game, players have a set and limited budget and reveal their preferences through purchases during gameplay. The Budget Games adds in the ability to increase the budget for all players through unanimous votes for cost-savings or revenue-generating proposals, such as a 1/4 cent sales tax increase or a reduction of staffing at fire engine companies. This mechanism allows city officials to gauge the community’s priorities for city services, along with their tolerance for initiatives to fund those services.


In Action

During the event,  community leaders from across San José gathered at City Hall, along with 30+ Innovation Games Trained facilitators, San José, CA, council members, the Mayor, City Manager and many subject matter experts, such as the Fire Chief, members of the Police Department, Budget Office and others. Across the room, a dozen tables debated, negotiated and ultimately came to a consensus on what their priorities were.

The conversations were often difficult and not always fun–not surprising since the game’s topic is so important. As Innovation Games Trained Facilitator Robert J. Stephenson observed after the event, “What struck me is the earnestness of the citizen volunteers. The general collaboration and civility did not come easily …  It was not all fun-and-games, but it was done cheerfully for a good cause.”

The Innovation Games team is currently post-processing the game results for the city and will be publishing more details about the event and the game results in the coming weeks. The San Jose City Council will begin studying the budget in mid-February, and the mayor’s budget message will be released in March.


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