In the midst of California’s severe budget crisis, essential services faced deep cuts, school years were shortened, and public discontent with the budget process was at an all-time high. Against pressure to make similar, sweeping budget cuts and risk public backlash, the city of San Jose took a novel approach: They gave their citizens control of the reins to help them understand what it meant to run a city.
San Jose residents playing the budget game
San Jose partnered with nonprofit software company Every Voice Engaged to create a budget simulator game, which groups of citizens would play to express their preferences to the government. While games have often been used by decision-makers to simulate difficult problems and identify an effective solution, the city of San Jose knew that by putting its citizens in the policymakers’ shoes, they could build an appreciation for the tradeoffs that go into designing a budget. This exercise proved highly successful, and elicited levels of civic engagement at the local level that the city of San Jose will continue to leverage for future projects.
I spoke with Kip Harkness, assistant to the city manager of San Jose, and Steve Dobbs of Every Voice Engaged to discuss what made this game a success and how others can learn from their experience.
To begin with, Kip, how did you come up with the idea of using a “serious game” to deal with your budget concerns?
KH: For us, it was a confluence of a couple of energies that came together. Our budget situation was getting more and more complicated, more and more dire. Our normal method of interacting with the public – asking them programs they would like see added – had to really shift gears when the budget was being prioritized. That was very new for us as a city, so we were very flummoxed as to how to do that. We ran a simple exercise on our own, giving people nickels and letting [them] put money where their mouth is, so to speak. The feedback we got from citizens was that such a little shift let them be much more involved in the process and made them feel that they were heard. It made a big difference to them.
When we connected with Every Voice Engaged, we realized that while that first foray into games was useful to us, it was the equivalent of Pong; it really wasn’t taking full advantage of the opportunities you could do with games. Since we tried it out on our own, we had the space to try it again. Every Voice Engaged has a deep experience in working with serious corporate clients from around Silicon Valley, and part of what was appealing about them was their experience with organizations we think of as very effective and very serious in the work that they do. Realizing that our traditional approach to the budget wasn’t going to work, we decided to give Every Voice Engaged a chance. Read the rest of this entry »