San Jose, California’s first city, now dubbed “the capital of Silicon Valley,” chalked up another “first” to its credits last month when it expanded its fourth annual in-person budget games event to include an online scalable version of the software game so the city could gather broader input from residents. The budget game is a specialized version of Conteneo’s “Buy a Feature” and “Buy a Project” game used by many of Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms and businesses around the world when prioritizing strategic projects.
Mayor Chuck Reed recalls the city introduced the Conteneo budget games in 2011 when San Jose was “in the middle of 10 straight years of budget deficits and facing deep cuts in core city services. “
“I had thought that the public would have favored closing all of the libraries and community centers before we entertained any potential cuts to our police and fire departments,” Reed says. “But our community-based budget process really highlighted that the public agreed that there are many different city services that contribute to public safety, which allowed us to take a more holistic approach to balancing the budget.”
San Jose’s mayor says the city residents’ input is just as helpful this year even with the fiscal situation improving. He says the detailed information from residents participating in the budget games helps the policy makers stay focused on the residents’ top priorities as they finalize the city budget.
Prior to using the Conteneo games in 2011, the city utilized budget prioritization exercises in its annual neighborhood association meeting. But the Conteneo games have a unique capability of harnessing the power of collaborative decision making, says Luke Hohmann, founder and CEO of Conteneo, Inc ™ (formerly The Innovation Games® Company). Whether a business or a government hosts the game, and whether it’s an in-person or online version, players receive play money to fund projects/initiatives — but not enough to buy what they want without negotiating and compromising with five to eight players at a game table.
Monica Gallyot has worked in different capacities on empowering youth in high-need areas of San Jose for 15 years and says she based her priorities for budget decisions “upon the marginalized population that is often underrepresented in these kinds of processes.”
There were several budget items that fit her priorities for youth in low-income, high-risk neighborhoods including her top two priorities: reopening satellite community centers in high-need areas and extending library hours to operate six days per week. She didn’t waiver on these priorities but became willing to forego funding for a crime prevention unit.
This was Gallyot’s second year to participate in the budget game. She enjoys the collaboration and negotiation aspects of the games “because the give-and-take process usually yields an agreeable compromise for everyone.” In the end, her table’s game players decided to make street repair the first priority because “it’s a large budget item that is often neglected in lieu of other negotiations.”
Tradeoffs in complex problems
Many participants say the aspect they enjoy the most about the game event is having access to city council members, the fire and police chiefs, city manager and department heads to answer questions about the initiatives.
Ed Rast, a San Jose resident and Willow Glen neighborhood leader for many years, comments that being able to ask questions of the city leaders and staff during the budget games significantly increases the participating residents’ understanding of the city’s complex financial and city-services problems.
Rast reports that he and other players at his table (especially those new to the budget games this year) were surprised that their initial preferences changed after learning some facts from more experienced neighborhood leaders, each other and the city leaders. As they finalized their budget priorities ranking, the additional information led to comments such as “Should we not spend money on that priority since there are more important priorities?” and “Wow! Now I understand the tradeoffs between spending and available revenue.”
Nick Muldoon, Agile coach at Twitter, is one of the many Conteneo Certified Collaboration Architects™ (CCAs) that volunteered their time to serve as game facilitators and traveled to San Jose from other cities around the world to ensure there would be no bias in the game results. The CCA team facilitating the games at the event included employees from Adobe, Apple, Cisco, HP and PayPal along with independent strategy, market research and Agile software development consultants.
Muldoon agrees the input from city leaders at the budget games is an important factor. He says the information from the police chief and a gentleman from the San Jose roads department quickly moved the game players at his table to a consensus opinion rallying around street repairs.
The input from the city leaders helped residents understand the city’s predicament in that budget initiatives only focus on what the city can actually act on and thus don’t include areas where it lacks control (such as with unions). With this understanding, they decided to distribute their pooled money differently than they had discussed at the outset.
Muldoon says he was struck by how engaged people were about contributing their input in the budget decisions. “The collaboration aspect of working together to pool their funds to buy an initiative was exciting for them and a really valuable experience. Whenever they collaborated, they smiled and said, ‘Great, we got that done.’”
Games give everyone a voice
Davlyn Jones, a board member of the Winchester Ranch Seniors Homeowners Association, went to the budget games to find out more about what was included in the budget. She hoped that senior citizens and affordable housing were included in the city’s 24 budget initiatives, but they weren’t on the list.
Jones says the thrust of the 24 budget items were police, fire trucks and firemen, library hours, parks and recreation, and crime and safety — obviously items of interest for other participants at her table, which included social workers, a community center person and an organizer for kids’ events.
“I was surprised at the decision we reached at our table!” says Jones. “We voted for street repair as the #1 priority. After discussions, we chose which items to buy out of the 24 according to what we felt the city priorities should be. There was no arguing. We each felt we had a voice. Democracy works!”
Changing stakeholder “me” perspectives to “we” perspectives
Ed Rast recalls that at the time of Mayor Reed’s election campaign seven years ago, he campaigned for a greater neighborhood and community voice in decisions that affect residents, citywide budget decisions and spending decisions.
Commenting on this year’s budget games, Mayor Reed says, “It energizes me to see our citizens roll up their sleeves and help us tackle the issues we are facing as a city.”
Luke Hohmann, creator of Conteneo’s budget game used at San Jose, says “Citizens in a representational democracy are supposed to wrestle with issues and be able to make their preferences known. The fact that citizens changed their minds about the priorities is a shining example of democracy.”
Hohmann explains that Conteneo’s “serious” games of collaboration help change stakeholders’ “me” perspectives to “we” perspectives because the games require working with others, thinking strategically and structuring negotiations on what will have the highest-impact results for a company or a government.
“People win when they work together and think holistically about what is right for an organization or government,” says Hohmann. “Our software scaled great for the online version of the 2014 San Jose budget games. This allows San Jose policy makers the benefit of input from hundreds more citizens than in prior years.”
The budget games went global in 2013 when the city of Kortrijk, Belgium, announced it would use the games as part of its citizen engagement project.
Luke Hohmann is founder and CEO of Conteneo, Inc.™, (formerly The Innovation Games® Company), providing seriously fun games that produce great strategy results for business. Luke’s background is in strategic planning and decision making in large and small companies. He is the author of the Epic Wins series — playbooks that show companies how to harness the power of serious games to achieve Epic Wins in business. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @lukehohmann.