San José Citizens Use Innovation Games® to Make Tough Budget Choices

On January 21, 2012, a diverse and highly motivated group of community leaders and engaged citizens from the City of San José, CA, played a specially designed Innovation Game®, Budget Games, to provide feedback regarding their budget priorities to the Mayor and City Council. With the involvement of the City of San José Neighborhood and Youth Planning Commissions, this budget prioritization event, which was based on a similar event held on January 29, 2011, enabled citizens to collaboratively tackle complex issues and through the mechanics of serious games develop solutions to very complex problems. Eleven games were played by 87 residents. Each game was played at a table with 7-9 players, along with two volunteers from the Innovation Games® community who acted as game facilitator and observer for each table.


The Budget Games, along with other Innovation Games events for nonprofit and civic organizations, demonstrate that serious games generate unprecedented levels of citizen engagement and help our elected officials make tough choices. And the results are nothing more than astonishing, with more than 10 out of 11 citizen groups voting to raise taxes in which eight of 11 citizen groups choosing to spend this tax revenue on improving critical transportation infrastructure. In past surveys by the city, respondents had also advocated tax increases, but the prevailing opinion was that support would erode as the issue was put out for public debate. The Budget Games, with their emphasis on collaboration and discussion, actually revealed that public sentiment remains strong in the face of debate. Also, while taxes were raised, and corresponding monies spent in this serious game, fiscal restraint ruled the day, as 10 out of 11 citizen groups chose not to spend all available money.

How is it then, that “games” can generate such amazing results?


Game Design

The design of any game flows from the goals of the game designer. To create a suitable game for the Priority Setting Session, we started with the Innovation Game® Buy a Featurewhich has been used by many Bay Area companies such as HP, Cisco, Adobe and VeriSign to prioritize product features and project portfolios. In Buy a Feature participants are given a limited amount of money to collaboratively purchase items of interest. Extending this to meet the needs of the budget session, we settled on the following game design. Citizens were given 19 hypothetical funding proposals and 13 hypothetical cost-savings and/or revenue-generating proposals and were told to make choices according to the following rules:

  1. To acquire funds to purchase (or “fund”) a funding proposal, citizens must reach unanimous agreement on a cost-saving or revenue generating proposal; the funds from this choice were then distributed to the participants.
  2. Once these proposals were enacted citizens could then purchase funding proposals with the money. Collaborative purchasing was encouraged, and in many cases required, as the most expensive items could only be funded in collaboration with other citizens.
  3. Citizens could also add new funding proposals into the game, increasing ideation and citizen engagement.
  4. Certain proposals were linked, in that citizens could choose either one of a pair of choices or neither choice. In addition, one revenue-generating was a parcel tax with special rules: The parcel tax that could only be used to fund pavement maintenance.

During the gameplay, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) representing various city departments and disciplines, were available to answer questions related to proposals, as requested by the players. While it’s very hard to convey the high-energy and dynamic discussions that occurred during the game, participants found the experience challenging, engaging, stimulating and, perhaps surprisingly for those who have had to deal with such challenging issues, fun.


Results, Part One: Purchases, Taxes, and Cuts

Innovation Games produce powerful, multi-dimensional results that enable organizations to take action on deep insights generated by the data. In these Budget Games, these results included 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, tax choices and funding cuts. For example, eight of 11 tables funded pavement maintenance; seven through a parcel tax and one through a sales tax. And while seven tables voted for Workers Compensation and Disability Retirement System Reform that would save the city and estimated $2M, not a single table voted to reduce the Children’s Health Initiative or eliminate the Park Ranger program.


Results, Part Two: Motivations and Negotiations–or Why These Purchases, Taxes 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.

To illustrate the power of these negotiations, you’ll note that when exploring the deeper reasons that eight out of 11 tables chose to fund pavement maintenance over other spending choices, the most common reason was that roads have simply deteriorated too much and that no amount of budget cutting can generate the money required to repair them. More importantly, citizen leaders know that they’re investing in the future of their city. This willingness to enact tax increases to fund pavement maintenance was in line with results of past surveys by the city, but as mentioned before, there was doubt about the strength of that sentiment in the face of public debate. The game results revealed the congruency of public sentiment with the survey, especially since gameplay hinges on debate and discussion. For example, one table of citizen-players spent 85 minutes arguing over whether to enact the tax increases, but with time running out, they knew they had to act to reveal their preferences and voted for the tax increase. Unlike traditional market research methods, the Budget Games are able to reveal the depth of public sentiment, in this case, that the traditional survey’s results were accurate.

The item purchased by all citizen groups was Gang Prevention programs. Gang violence is perceived as a very serious systemic threat to the city, causing a whole host of problems. Rather than singling out any one problem, citizens focused on the system of problems associated with Gang violence, with discussions at most tables focused on “non-police” intervention to increase the safety and “livability” of the city. Of course, citizens recognized the vital role that police play in gang intervention. However, as one resident noted, police are just one part of a system that must work together to prevent gang violence. And no matter which aspect of the system was emphasized, every table voted for it.

In 2011, 10 out of 12 tables chose to reduce Fire Truck Staffing from five firefighters to four, saving the city an estimated $5,000,000. In 2012, however, only three of 11 tables chose to reduce staffing from four to three. Discussions from the citizens suggested that the amount of “cutting” associated with Fire Department staffing had reached a limit and that further cuts to Fire Truck staffing would not solve the city’s problems and could make it worse.

Were these easy choices? No, of course not. We cannot stress that these choices were extremely tough for the community leaders who participated. This was a very serious game. Fortunately, the negotiations of all but one table were extremely civil, primarily because players were sitting face-to-face, in small groups. And even most contentious table eventually turned around when the citizen-players were reminded that their spirited discussions of the items would have little impact unless they actually made purchases or cuts to match their convictions.


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.

However, 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 any 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. 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 game.

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, we are 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.

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 his or her money a certain way eventually give sway to actually listening to another player outline his or her 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 José City Budget Games, most tables elected not to spend all of their money, even after making tough budget cuts or even harder choices around raising taxes. At first, this might seem a bit surprising, especially since this was “play” money. However, experience with virtual currencies suggests that people behave much the same way with virtual currency as with real currency. In these specific games, the citizen-players of San José, 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.



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 José 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. Perhaps more importantly, citizens strongly praised the subject matter experts for trying to explain complex issues without unduly influencing citizen choices.



The Best Result? Action!

Although we’ve completed our games, the hard work of creating the 2012 -2013 City of San José 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.

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