Best Practices in Participatory Budgeting

Because we have produced or co-produced successful Participatory Budget initiatives since 2011 in cities around the world, I was thrilled when the White House promoted the use of Participatory Budgeting in its Second Open Government National Action Plan. In this plan, the White House has specifically requested for “tools and best practices” for implementing Participatory Budgeting. That’s sharp thinking and having experienced practitioners share their work helps the global community. It’s also a timely request, as we’re in the midst of preparing for the largest ever Participatory Budgeting event: We’re recruiting 10,000 citizens for a series of Budget Games Jan 23-25, 2014 for San Jose, CA (want to help? Sign up here).

So whether your goal is engaging 10 people or 100,000, read on: You’ll be able to leverage our wisdom to make your event a success.


Seven Best Practices

Based on our experience, here are seven best practices when implementing Participatory Budgeting.

1. Start with a Serious Game.

The essential element of Participatory Budgeting is participation. The most powerful, most compelling, and most thorough from of engagement occurs through serious games that are carefully designed to help citizens deeply understand issues, develop empathy and insights, and create the actionable results that drive policy decisions. Our Budget Games meet this quality: They have been carefully designed and proven through years of use to create the results needed by elected officials. And, our games are a stark contrast to traditional forms of “town hall meetings” in which citizens may or may not participate, may or may not speak, and are frequently criticized for their inability to generate actionable results.

The games also provide unprecedented scale, enabling you to leverage the in-person versions of our games to engage dozens to hundreds of citizens, and our online gaming platform to engage thousands to millions of citizens using standard web-based technologies that enable powerful analytic capabilities on the results. (Our dream is to see 500 Million citizens using our platforms to engage with their governments.) The best news is that these are not mutually exclusive: We have produced hybrid events, in which participants are playing both in-person and online games. You can, too.


2. Ensure Elected Officials and Citizens Are Included.

When we implemented our first Budget Games event in San José, CA in 2011, we worked with elected officials to develop the set of budget choices for the games. This ensured that the issues being presented to the citizens would produce high-impact, actionable results because the elected officials were quite explicit in seeking the feedback of citizens.

In 2012, we extended our process to allow citizens to suggest new projects to the list of projects included in our game. These “write-in candidates” provided a means for the City to identify critical new projects while also framing new projects in the context of existing initiatives. Five new projects were added by the more than 100 citizens who played these games.

Our formal recommendation is to always start with elected officials to ensure that they will act on the results. The elected officials, in turn, can choose the degree to which citizen input will drive the choices presented in the games. And if you want to produce an event that is focused exclusively on developing ideas, our game Make My Neighborhood Great! is a proven approach.


3. Organize in Small Groups.

A key design requirement of any event designed to motivate participation is organizing the participants into small groups, ideally between 6 and 8 participants. Simply put, humans do not collaborate in large groups. The advantage of this approach is that instead of one large mass of people failing to meaningfully discuss issues or make choices, our game events produce a unique result from each game played. We can then analyze results to identify key patterns of produce the high-impact results desired by our elected officials.


4. Include Subject Matter Experts.

Our Budget Games are carefully organized to include Subject Matter Experts (like the Fire Chief, Police Chief and other representatives from different departments) who are present to answer questions from citizens. This helps citizens understand complex system dynamics (for example, more police won’t improve public safety if the roads don’t have sufficient quality), creates empathy in experts who are at risk of losing touch with the concerns of “ordinary” people, and builds relationships with citizens and civic servants, a critical component in restoring trust between citizens and their government.


5. Use Certified Facilitators.

A well-designed Participatory Budgeting session tackles complex issues directly, exploring multiple perspectives and considering many scenarios. There is no obvious “right” or “wrong” choice. Instead, citizens must weigh competing factors, explore various options, and find ways to reach a meaningful outcome.The careful design of our serious games helps ensure that citizens collaborate to create actionable results. However, our years of experience producing Participatory Budgeting events confirms our experience in working with many for-profit entities around the world: Certified Facilitators produce the best results. Certified Facilitators ensure the event is planned thoroughly, help manage the flow of the conversations, ensure that no one dominates the conversation, draw out shy or reticent participants, and gently help citizens explore choices. We are proud that our global team of Certified Collaboration Architects has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in pro-bono services.


6. Provide Food.

Food should be a part of any event. Of course, you must tailor your food to local customs: Jurgen de Smet, a Certified Collaboration Architect has produced a series of successful events in Aalbeke (Kortrijk) Belgium, writes that participants enjoyed a beer during an evening event (read the full story here). In San José, CA, participants enjoy coffee and pastries in the morning and a boxed lunch in the afternoon (though beer is not involved in the San José games, I sometimes wonder if it should be ;-).


7. Share Outcomes.

As described by the White House, “Participatory budgeting allows citizens to play a key role in identifying, discussing, and prioritizing public spending projects, and gives them a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent.” While this is a great start, we have found that citizens want more than just being heard: They want to know, in a very real way, that elected officials are incorporating their feedback into the process. They want to see the changes in policy and understand which projects are being tackled.

Some Participatory Budgeting events do this directly, as in the 2013 Participatory Budget event in Vallejo, CA, in which citizens directly prioritized $2.4M allocated by the city council for this purpose. Early that year, San José, CA, citizens did this indirectly, when they provided input into more than $81M in potential spending, $63M in revenue generating and additional budget cuts, and $295M in a 30-year bond paid through a $100 parcel tax to rehabilitate pavement in deteriorating streets. These results were then included after additional analysis into final budget choices.

Our experience is that direct Participatory Budgeting projects are based on smaller, more tactical/near-term budget issues, while indirect Participatory Budgeting projects are better equipped to address larger, more strategic/longer-term budget issues. Regardless of whether or not your Participatory Budgeting is focused on smaller items or larger items, the key is to show participants that every voice was not only heard but that they were engaged in producing identifiable results.

While I could add additional best practices, these seven are enough to get you and your Participatory Budgeting projects focused in the right direction. Now let’s explore some critical mistakes to avoid.


Five Things to Avoid

  • Large Groups. It’s surprising how frequently we encounter event designers who think that 20, 40, 100 or even 1,000 people can engage in Participatory Budgeting as a single group. This is just not possible. Humans do not collaborate in large groups. If you’ve got more than 8 people in a group, you don’t have a collaboration model– you have a broadcast model. Some event designs try to overcome the issues of large group size by presenting an issue to a large group and then giving each person an electronic voting device. This is nothing more than a real-time survey and does not produce the level of meaningful participation we seek in Participatory Budgeting.
  • Trying to Change the Structure of Representative Democracy. We are not trying to change the structure of our democracy. We are trying to increase the degree of civic engagement. For anyone looking for anarchy or revolution, move along: You won’t find it here!
  • Changing the Rules of the Game. All of our games have been designed through years of experience to produce the right result for the problem you’re facing. We recommend that you follow the rules of the games we’ve designed until you’ve gained enough experience to change them. Once you’ve built that experience, have fun experimenting. (More next month on adapting other games for use in Civic Engagement!).
  • Anonymity. Unlike voting, in which anonymity is considered essential, in our Participatory Budgeting events, whether online or in-person, we neither promise nor promote anonymity. For obvious reasons, in-person games cannot be anonymous. For potentially long and boorish technical reasons, the more you play online games, the more likely it is that we can uniquely identify you. So, we don’t promise anonymity when we don’t want it or can’t grant it, and neither should you.
  • Underestimating the Planning. A well-designed and produced Participatory Budgeting event is incredibly powerful, deeply engaging, and hugely impactful. A poorly designed and rushed event is frustrating, disenfranchising, and ultimately fails to produce the desired result. The root cause in both cases is planning: Adequate planning in the former, inadequate planning in the later.To ensure success you must invest in planning. Don’t worry if you haven’t produced a Participatory Budgeting event before: There are thousands of Certified Collaboration Architects around the world who can help you.

Like our best practices, this list can also be extended. But, if you follow the rules of the games we’ve created, you’ll find that you can easily avoid these negative outcomes.


Participatory Budgeting and Games

Whether you’re a concerned citizen, a community leader, the head of your PTA or the General Manager of a $220 million dollar product line, I hope that this post has inspired you to examine how serious games can be used to strengthen civic engagement and communities. And if you’re inspired, we hope that you will join us in helping to support the 2014 Budget Games for the City of San Jose, CA, or put the games to work in your community.

Meet the speaker: Jurgen de Smet on “Get yourself on the Cover”

Your session at the Innovation Games Summit is called “Get Yourself on the Cover”. What can attendees expect?
They can expect to “learn by doing”, as we will collaboratively create a vision that engages participants to actions. We’ll do this by combining a meeting carousel with a cover story to generate insights and reflect on the outcomes and endless possibilities towards execution.

The summit is bringing together people who are the front lines of using games to do work. What has been your overall experience with doing work with games?
As a team leader and product owner, I’ve been using serious games since 2006. While my career within Agfa Healthcare was booming, I kept using games to engage people around me and get them to work together and have fun. Later on, I also started using games as a way to teach and coach others. Today, I employ games in almost everything I do, for my company, as well as for my customers. Recently, I brought the Budget Games to Belgium (Aalbeke – Kortrijk), where we used games to get citizens engaged with the city budget plans.
Using games in assignments, problem-solving or investigations is, for me, the most appropriate way to get people to collaborate and achieve amazing results. Attendees and customers keep on being surprised about the impact of games and that’s nice. One of the reasons I became an Innovation Games Qualified Instructor is that I want to spread out the message to the world: Game on!

Do you have a favorite Innovation Game or technique? Why is it your favorite?
I have no favorite, as all of them work very well for the context they were developed for. But I like to put a twist on existing games, change or combine them in different ways, or even invent new games, depending on the question and context they’re used in.

What techniques or games do you use most frequently and why?
The difficult question actually. There are so many games I use often. I think it all depends on the question we want to get insights on, the people we are working with, and the constraints set for the event.
As I said, I like to change the games as much as possible for each assignment as this brings out the creative part in me, but I keep following the basic structures of Innovation Games® and Gamestorming. I like to invent new, effective and fun ways to do serious work and this keeps repetitive work (like Agile retrospectives) interesting, engaging and fun. The games I most use are Product Box for visioning purposes in all different kind of contexts, Prune the Product Tree to get more details out and generate deeper insights into visions, strategy, products and such, most likely together with a Buy a Feature for prioritization purposes. Then again 20/20 Vision is the one most used, I guess.

What are you most looking forward to at the Summit? Any particular sessions?
I’m looking forward to hearing stories from others on how they explored the power of games; preferably in domains, I have not been active in (yet). Next, to that, I’m also pleased to catch up with my friends such as Luke, Ant, Jonathan, Oana, Bart, and Ulf. Basically, I’m looking forward to the learning and fun I’ll have over there.


Budget Games in Belgium

Budget Games in Belgium
Jurgen De Smet, cofounder of – and our newest Qualified Instructor!– just announced that he is working with the city of Kortrijk, Belgium to bring the Budget Games to their citizens. After three successful years of Budget Gamesfor the City of San Jose, CA,

Jurgen de Smet works to bring Budget Games to Belgium
Jurgen de Smet works to bring Budget Games to Belgium

we’re thrilled to see the game make a difference for communities around the world.

Jurgen had been a longtime fan of Innovation Games and the work we’d done in San Jose, but doubted that he’d see such a community-based effort take hold in Europe. Jurgen writes”Budget Games are just starting to get some ground in the US public sector and, as such, I had the impression that a European implementation was not going to happen in my lifetime. I was wrong!”
Kortrijk’s city council, much to Jurgen’s surprise, recently announced an initiative called Kortrijk Speaks, to better involve the community in government. “Being a engaged citizen of Kortrijk myself,” Jurgen continues, “I could not resist to challenge the Mayor (Vincent Van Quickenborne) to step up and compare ‘Kortrijk Speaks’ with the initiatives in San Jose, using ‘Budget Games’.”

City of San Jose Budget Games
City of San Jose Budget Games

The rest is history … well, close enough. The City of Kortrijk will continue “Kortrijk Speaks” using “Budget Games” as a market research tool, and providing an opportunity for the people to seize power within its City governance.

To read more about the initiative — and get involved– check out the complete post here.

Budget Games: Three Times the Charm!

Budget Games: Three Times the Charm!
The Innovation Games Summit wasn’t the only big event in January. Many of the attendees stayed on for the third annual Budget Games event for the City of San José, CA. The event was our largest Budget Games yet, with 40 facilitators and observers–some of whom came from as far as Sweden, Canada and the UK–and 120 local residents.

Our hat’s off to the Innovation Games community for donating their time to help the residents of San José. The Budget Games could not have been possible without their committment to spend their Saturday helpingthe citizens of San José prioritize the budget.

Get those people actively involved in the process! San Jose Budget Games: A Graphic View

Getting people involved in the decision making process can be quite a challenge, but the City of San José has a successful 3-year track record of partnering with Innovation Games® to pull its citizens out of their homes and into City Hall for the Budget Games. Mark McGregor facilitated at this year’s games and highlights his experience here.  “It was equally impressive to watch how people changed their perceptions based upon new inputs from other players,” explains McGregor.

Building a Better Budget

Andrea & Andy Simon, Innovation Games Qualified Instructors, came for New York to volunteer at the Budget Games. Andrea writes in her blog post on the event, “What is so interesting about these games is that Andy and I had different roles to play at different tablesand each table went about the games differently. Mine decided to agree to the revenue and cost issue first, so that they knew how much money they had to work with. His went after the priorities. Some of the tables went immediately to public safety. Mine discussed community centers and libraries and thought there were enough police and firemen but that they had to be used more effectively.”


The 1st Innovation Games Summit was Awesome!

The 1st Innovation Games Summit was Awesome!   

It’s been a month since more than 100 Innovation Games Fans converged at the first ever Innovation Games Summit in Santa Clara, CA, and we’re still  buzzing with excitement. The two day Summit was packed with real world stories of of how serious games are doing serious work – every day (more than two dozen sessions, keynotes and panels, and included the first-ever Innovation Games Certification courses. (More on that later.)

If you couldn’t attend, don’t fret. We did manage to videotape a few of the sessions, and several attendees also shared their conference play-by-play. Here’s the rundown:

Watch What Happened: Video
The Social IT Game: Myers-Briggs for IT Organizations
Serena Software’s Kevin Parker
Serena Software’s Kevin Parker shared how Knowsy is being used by the Serena Marketing team to learn about customer priorities and drive revenue – all through the power of play.
Kaiser Permanente's Leading Innovation Game
Kaiser Permanente’s Leading Innovation Game
 Kaiser Permanente’s Deanna Konrath shared a custom board game Kaiser Permanente has created to encourage Innovation and creativity in strategic  planning. Attendees got to hear how Kaiser is using the game, and got to play it themselves.
Innovation Games: Roll Out by Infection at Rackspace
Roll Out by Infection at Rackspace
Not to be outdone, Rackspace’s Tony Wolf let attendees know about his company’s Racktivity Room, a room dedicated to solely to serious game play.
Conference Play-by-Plays

Golden Nuggets from Steve
Protegra’s Steve Rogalsky summarizes his experience as “Golden Nuggets” – the practical things you learn at a conference that you’re able to put to work right away. What did Steve gain from attending the Summit?
  1. Retrospective Redux: He’ll allow team members to vote on their top 3 and bottom 3 ideas and use the net votes as the top items to pursue in the next iteration.
  2. Find more ways to apply the Budget Games process.
  3. Facilitation techiques: Gently nudge participants. Move the conversation with a less direct approach.
  4. A new podcast source! Look for Jack Dorsey  and
  5. Something to read: Steve Farber’s The Radical Leap Re-Energized.

Sue Kim Wants to Party

Sue Kim’s take on the Innovation Games Summit is titled “I Wanna Party Like It’s 2001”, and she zeroes right in on Tom Grant’s closing keynote, “It’s Time to Change the Rules of Work”. 

Sue writes that she’s “doubtful he said any of what I’ve written below. But there are certain sentences that continue to occupy my head after listening to him — and don’t show any signs of leaving.” I think she presents a pretty fine summary, but you don’t have to take my word for it, since Tom is doing an encore presentation of his keynote on April 5, 2013.

Don’t Miss the Early Bird!

Limited spots available; ends December 13, 2012.

Join us at the first Innovation Games Summit on Jan. 24-25, 2013, with pre-Summit workshops on January 22-23. The inaugural event will bring together innovators, leaders and change agents in both the private and public sector to discuss how Collaborative Play is helping organizations large and small exceed their potential.

Register today to make sure you won’t miss:


  • Keynotes by Luke Hohmann and Alexander Osterwalder
  • Sessions by business leaders from Cisco, NetApp, John Deere, 8th Light, Every Voice Engaged, Innovation Games, Aneega, and many more!
  • The 3rd Annual Budget Games for the City of San Jose, CA! (Put your facilitation skills to work for good!)
  • The launch of the official Innovation Games Certification program
  • Preview of the Brand New Innovation Games Online Platform.
  • And more!


As Seen in the Financial Times: Playing the Budget Game

Financial Times: Playing the Budget Game

On November 9, 2012, Financial Time’s Assistant Editor and Market Commentator Gillian Tett wrote about our work with the City of San Jose, CA to elicit feedback and cooperation from community leaders and city residents during the budgeting process. Like many cities in the U.S., San Jose has faced budget shortfalls, resulting in reduced city services. Beginning in 2011, we adapted a version of our prioritization game “Buy a Feature” to work for government, allowing citizens, during the Budget Game, to not only “purchase” the city services they most value, but also gain revenue for those purchases by either cutting current services or increasing revenue through various tax measures.

Tett writes, “A cynic might dismiss this as just a marketing or political gimmick. And San Jose appears to be the first city in the US to do anything quite like this. But, if nothing else, the experiment is distinctly thought-provoking, particularly given the real-life democratic dramas that have played out in America this week.”

The third annual Budget Games for the city of San Jose will be on January 26, 2013. And Every Voice Engaged, the nonprofit founded to bring Budget Games to other communities is in talks to bring the games to local governments across the U.S.

To read the complete Financial Times article, go here. Want to get involved with the 3rd Annual Budget Games? Sign up at

A Grab Bag of Innovation

I like to pride myself on writing thoughtful, useful, and at times, provocative posts. But sometimes there are just so many good things happening that I’m not entirely certain where to focus my energies. So, this month I’m going to write a “grab bag” post — a veritable cornucopia of important items to share!



TIGC Customer Advisory Board Meeting: Key Insights From Customers

Ever wonder if we “practice what we preach”? Yeah, we do! On Sep 20, 2012, we invited our closest and largest customers to attend a Customer Advisory Board and Customer Funding meeting to help the company accomplish the following goals:

  • Identify and prioritize the key value propositions of our games and offerings;
  • Understand the impediments that are preventing our customers from realizing these benefits;
  • Develop some draft “sticky slogans” that can capture these benefits;
  • Explore which existing and new services are of most interest to CAB members;
  • Prioritize potential enhancements to Innovation Games® Online.

I was thrilled with the turnout: Mark Interrante (Rackspace), Jean-Francois Vanreusel (Adobe), Julia French (Avaya), Jeff Honious (Reed Elsevier), Paul Germeraad (Intellectual Assets), Steve Dodds (Every Voice Engaged), Monique Anderson (vsp), Julie Hu (vsp), Laura Merling (Alcatel-Lucent), Jon Snyder (Cisco), Tom Wesselman (Cisco), Kip Harkness (City of San Jose), Kara Jariwala (HP), Peter Green (Adobe), and Jon Kerry-Tyerman (LexisNexis). Paul Mantey (NetApp) also contributed key content to the meeting (but was unable to attend in person).

As you can guess, we played games all day (specially designed versions of 2020 Vision, Speed Boat, and Buy a Feature). Our games were expertly facilitated by Deb Colden and our graphic facilitator was Julia Feng.

Through these games we learned a great deal. Here is a brief summary of our insights — and what we’re planning on doing:

  1. Our games are used in more ways than we knew! Our customers shared stories of how they’re using the games to improve sales, identify customer priorities, engage employees and perform a whole range of activities. What was especially exciting was watching customers share experiences and then make connections so that they can continue to use games throughout their business.
  2. Provide more “full agency” services. We learned that while our customers love our games, and are using them, they also want us to offer more services that will make it even easier for them to play our games. These services range from prepackaged “kits” of game supplies to other services that we’ll be designing and rolling out to customers.
  3. Make Innovation Games® Online “slick”. While our current online games produce amazing results, we’re the first to admit that our current user experience is not “slick”. It needs to be improved. We are listening to our customers and have initiated a major program to redesign our entire user interface and user experience, from scratch. We’re really excited about this, and can’t wait to build our next generation offering!
  4. Continue to offer both in-person and online games. Our customers want us to continue to offer both in-person and online games. So, we will!
  5. Develop a “Certified” Facilitator program. While our customers praised our trained facilitator program, they were clear that they wanted more. Specifically, they want a Certified Facilitator program that they can use to identify the best facilitators for their needs. We are committed to creating a terrific program and are working on a program we will launch in at the Innovation Games® Summit.

Arguably the most emotional aspect of the day was the final items purchased in our Buy a Feature game. As many of you know, we are deeply committed to using our games to engage citizens through our relationship with Every Voice Engaged, a nonprofit we helped to start. During our game, we offered several new features for Innovation Games® online to our customers — including the direct support of Budget Games in our platform. After much intense debate, our customers elected to fund the development of this critically needed software. Of course, those of you who have played Innovation Games know that I’m not giving this debate justice (it really was very intense!). That said, it helped us all realize that our customers care about things that are much, much, much bigger than just prioritizing features!

Three Years of San Jose Budget Games: Jan 26, 2013

On Oct 2, 2012, Kip Harkness and Ernest Guzman from the City of San Jose, Steve Dodds from Every Voice Engaged, and I shared lunch to start the high-level planning of the third year of Budget Games for the City of San Jose. I’m thrilled with the game design that we developed (Steve will be sharing more on this, over time, at Every Voice Engaged).

The reason I am highlighting this event in our newsletter is that we’re going to try and make this the BIGGEST game we’ve produced yet! We’re hoping to engage hundreds of citizens — which means we going to need a LOT of facilitators. To help create the facilitators we need, we hope that you’ll come to the Innovation Games&ref; Summit on Jan 24/25, 2013 and then stay for the Budget Games. If you can help, please contact Every Voice Engaged.

Alexander Osterwalder to keynote the Innovation Games® Summit: Jan 24/25, 2013

I’m incredibly thrilled that Alexander Osterwalder, famed co-author of Business Model Generation, has agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Innovation Games&ref; Summit! Come and join us celebrate 10 years of serious gaming! Details here!

PDMA playing Innovation Games at an annual conference — Oct. 20-24, 2012

We’re thrilled that attendees at PDMA’s Product Innovation Management Annual Global Conference in Orlando, FL, will be playing Innovation Games on Oct. 23 & 24 to improve the PDMA and the conference experience. We’re no strangers to using Innovation Games to get better attendee feedback and engagement, along with providing a better attendee experience. There are no boring booths with Innovation Games in play.

The games will be played in the PDMA booth during the Innovation Pavilion, and include Conference Benefits Tree (a specially adapted version of Prune the Product Tree) and Putting Results Into Action! (a variation of Remember the Future.) The attendees will also receive a post-conference report compiled from games results; the report will be designed to help attendees apply their conference-related learning and experience to their work.