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.

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.”


Meaningful Games–Michigan to France

Meaningful Games–Michigan to France

The best part of putting together this newsletter each month is seeing how Innovation Games® are being put to work around the globe, in every industry imaginable. This month we have posts from conferences and meetups in the US and Europe, revealing how Innovation Gamers are putting Budget GamesSpeed BoatRemember the Future and more to work! 

Meaningful Play
Innovation Games Qualified Instructor Andy Simon joined

 Andy Simon
Andy Simon

Every Voice Engaged Ambassador Steve Dodds and Michigan State’s Carrie Heeter to discuss Every Voice Engaged Great Neighborhoods program at the Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State this fall. The Great Neighborhoods program was designed by Innovation Games’s not-for-profit spin-off, Every Voice Engaged, to help local governments support community and neighborhood growth through the use of serious games. Read Andy’s blog post, and check out Every Voice Engaged for more details on Innovation Games is doing good works.

Buy a Feature — en Francais
There’s no doubt that Innovation Games have take France
Buy a Feature in Paris

by storm, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. (After all, I actually get to put my seven years of French classes to work.) Case in point, the recent Agile Playground event in Paris that featured Buy a Feature as one of two games participants played. Nathaniel Richand, aided by Audrey Pedro and Yannick Grenzinger facilitated the game. The subject was an e-learning platform and the participants–as always–had to collaborate to “purchase” the best possible features. Read more (in French, of course) here.

Speed Boat + Remember the Future
Our friends at ValTech have been using Innovation Games
Valtech Open Space
Speed Boat at Valtech

to great affect in their work. Case in point, this post by Valtech Trainer and Agile Coach Jean Claude Grosjean, entitled “Speed Boat + Remember the Future + Open Space = the Road to Joy“. Jean Claude details how ValTech’s team used both games in an internal standup to define ValTech’s vision of success and how they will get there. Onward!


Software Powered Through Collaborative Play
InfoQ just published the video of Luke Hohmann’s keynote at SDEC 2012 in Winnipeg last October. Luke’s talk centers around his favorite topic, how games power innovation.

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

Agile & Innovation Games Can Change the World

You can make a difference. That was the message today in Luke Hohmann’s morning session at Agile 2012. In the hour-long talk, “Fixing Broke(n) Governments with Serious Games”, Hohmann introduced Innovation Game’s civic engagement efforts and outlined how we’re continuing to bring change to communities while working with the Every Voice Engaged Foundation.

In addition to the two successful Budget Games events held for the City of San Jose, CA, Hohmann also discussed other game initiatives to drive community growth, including Make My Neighborhood Great and We Commit.

The 30+ attendees must have left inspired based on the session feedback (See it here). We’ll be calling on them to bring Budget Games and Community Growth games to their cities.

If you want to be involved and bring change to your community, let Every Voice Engaged know.

UVA Leadership Program Puts Buy a Feature to Work

Innovation Games® at Work

UVA Leadership Program Puts Buy a Feature to Work

Earlier this year, I got a call from a friend who works as a Learning and Development specialist at the University of Virginia. JoEllen had heard me rattle on endlessly about the Budget Games we had produced for the City of San José, CA earlier this year, and that story got her thinking.

JoEllen Wilkins, University of Virginia

The University of Virginia (UVA) like nearly every public university in the U.S., is facing budget constraints thanks to the current economic climate, and similar to other organizations, would like more of its employees to have a broader understanding of how those budget cuts affect the university as whole. JoEllen wondered if there was a way to use Innovation Games® in one of her training sessions to help the current crop of University of Virginia executives to shift their perspective from the departmental level to the University as a whole–particularly around budgeting.

What did you want to accomplish by using Innovation Games®?

We wanted the new executives to participate in an exercise that would illustrate the challenges of thinking about budgets at the university level, rather than at a departmental level. So, we asked them to identify budget cuts based on a fictitious directive to reduce the university budget by 3%.

Our ultimate goal was to get people thinking about budgeting decisions before our guest speaker from the Budget Office talked to them about budget processes, funding sources, and so on. We used the game to “prime the pump” and played the online game ahead of our in-person meeting. It gave them some context for really absorbing the budget information that followed.

What Innovation Games did you use and why?

We ultimately decided to use the Buy A Feature Online game because it gave us the prioritization angle that we needed. As we were talking about what we wanted this activity to be, I recalled reading an article about how The Innovation Games® Company had done something similar with the city of San Jose, CA. We were inspired to use Innovation Games because our needs were very similar—except ours was for training purposes, not real life.

Did you modify/change the game and what were the results?

We flipped the game around. Participants cast votes to identify budget cuts that they would make, given a fictitious directive to reduce the university budget by 3%.

Any unexpected benefits?

During the games, I was impressed with how participants from potentially impacted areas would weigh in to educate the others about the impacts of some of the proposed budget cuts. They did it in a thoughtful way, and were recognized for really knowing their business and helping the others get smarter about overall university business as well.

We had an engaging discussion in person when we were debriefing the online games. We talked about how we made decisions about where to cast our votes. It was interesting to see how people made decisions when there were only hard choices.

Sometimes people are concerned about the concept of serious games and whether the techniques can really be used to do “real work”? Did you have any reservations about the games?

We didn’t exactly do “real work” with the game, because we didn’t actually cut anything from the university budget! But it was “real work” in the sense that it provided us with a great starting point for a discussion about current budget realities.

Would you use Innovation Games again?

Absolutely. We started with an online game because it best met our logistical needs. But, I’m interested to try some of the in-person games, perhaps as part of an employee development effort with intact teams.

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.

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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San José Citizens Play Innovation Games to Reveal Budget Priorities (Video)

On January 21, more than 100 community leaders from San José, CA played a specially designed version of Buy a Feature, Budget Games, to reveal their priorities for the City of San Jose’s 2012-2013 Budget. This is the second year the city of San José, CA, has worked with The Innovation Games Company to bring citizens, community leaders and city government together for a priority setting session to kick off the six month budgeting process. San José, CA, like many cities, is facing another year of budget deficits–a shortfall made worse by the State’s slashing of redevelopment agency funds.

In this coverage from CBS Channel 5, Mayor Chuck Reed, Council Member Pierluigi Oliverio, TIGC CEO Luke Hohmann and community leaders all comment on the difficult decisions facing the city and how the community can come together to tackle it.


San José Voters Take On Balancing The Budget With Innovation Games