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 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.
SD: Every Voice Engaged is the result of 20 years of work in understanding what makes certain innovation practices successful, and others not. We applied this understanding to software programming, from which came a series of games that helped companies decide what their new products should be, how they should prioritize new features, and such, from a broad market research perspective. We applied this idea to other areas, which is essentially what happened here with city of San Jose and other non-profits. We really are interested in the process of “ideation” or creation and this process help to facilitate that.
KH: I grew up in a Marine Corps family – my dad is a career Marine – and every now and then he’d go off and play war games. For me, gaming and work were not the confusing conundrum that it is for most people. The military has been using games as part of their structured training for a very long time, and so the idea of using a game within a city seemed obvious.
Did you face any difficulties (legal, policy, or financial) when you were getting approval to move this ahead?
KH: The inclination is to go from point A to point B and create these budget games. People tend to think of [the process] like a motorboat and moving in a straight line, but it’s really more like surfing and going with the waves and the wind as they come. One thing I knew about our local environment was that the mayor was very interested in getting the community to deeply understand the complexities of the budget, and that if we could deliver a process to him that got 100 of the most influential leaders in the neighborhoods being deeply informed about the reality of the city, he wouldn’t care about the method we used. I [intentionally chose to] start by “surfing” the energy of the mayor’s office and positioning myself in that space, so if we were ever questioned as to why we were creating this game, we would have the backing of the city manager and the mayor. This allowed us to navigate around a lot of the internal opposition and legal challenges.
In terms of [legal issues], we dealt with that by avoiding it. By that, I mean that we chose not to link the outcomes of the budget games to the actual budget decision-making process itself. That way, we didn’t get into a policy snare because we didn’t give this group of people the ability to make policy.
When you decided to go ahead with this idea and got approval from the mayor, how did you advertise or market it to the public?
KH: We have a long history of working and collaborating with neighborhood groups in San Jose. We knew that we had a limit in capacity to about 100 people, so in order to be fair and equitable, we allowed each neighborhood group to send one representative. We wanted to make sure that we got as broad a spectrum of neighborhood groups as possible. This also forced a diverse group of citizens to participate, and since we were drawing on existing relationships, this was a model that people were already familiar and comfortable with.
SD: Another wise decision was initially to make sure that the city was represented broadly, so that each particular group would represent people from each part of the city. That way, the outcome of the game would truly represent a collaboration in terms of the city of San Jose, as opposed to a particular neighborhood.
KH: This is particularly important, because it not only got citizens to meet people that they didn’t know, but it more accurately recreated the dynamic of power structure in the real world.
Regarding the game itself, how did you determine the decisions that citizens had to make?
KH: We spent a lot of time in the initial phase trying to understand what the actual question we were asking was, and once we understood what we were trying to drive at, that allowed us to choose the right game. We used a game called Buy-a-Feature that allowed a group of people to collaboratively decide which features are most important to them, and what they want to add or take out from their districts, which is essentially what we needed to do as a city government. So we created a version of Buy-a-Feature that had groups of eight, assigned them an amount of money that was 40 percent of what they actually needed, and worked with subject matter experts in the city to develop the list of features, projects and services that the groups would decide on. That way, when the participants were sitting down at the table, they’d have a real taste of the difficulty in the decision-making, in that it would be complex enough that people would have to argue through the tradeoffs.
SD: The unique aspect of this game is that it’s a prioritization exercise. It’s different than other approaches, like single-player budget games, because it requires people to negotiate with each other. Everyone starts with the same amount of money, so everyone is equally powerful in determining how to prioritize the result. It’s really the collaboration that happens at the table that determines how we end up with a prioritized list. We had observers at the table who listened to the discussions to understand why citizens made specific decisions, so that the city could learn not only what citizens chose, but also their motivations for it.
KH: To better simulate the real world, if the group wanted to bring more money in, they would have to cut something, which requires unanimous support. This mimics the difficulty of making budget cuts in California, and lets us know that if everyone in a group agreed to make a cut, then that must have been very meaningful, and is something that we should be paying attention to.
SD: This game isn’t just a matter of stakeholder buy-in, but shows that if the city decides to take their cuts into consideration, then that goes a long way in building an ecosystem of trust. This was extremely valuable in the success of the game.
How did you evaluate the game’s goal? Was your goal just to expose citizens to the decision-making process, or did you have alternative goals in mind as well?
KH: [Our main goal was that] we wanted people walking out of that room knowing more about the budget than when they walked in, and having had the chance to express their priorities. We also hoped to actually take action on what came out of the games, and that this would in turn create a greater level of information and dialogue about the budget as a whole on a city-wide level.
One of the other outcomes which we are now intentional about is how profoundly important it is for the staff who participate. I’ll give the example of the Fire Chief. Not only is the Fire Chief involved in crafting what goes into the game, but the Fire Chief was present at the event as well. That way, if someone had a question about how specific policies worked, they could ask the Fire Chief directly. For the Fire Chief, he walks away having essentially had a day full of focus groups around some of the key issues he’s wrestling with in his department. That’s a powerful thing for all the department heads who were involved.
With regards to the results, were there any surprises in how the citizens made decisions?
KH: For the past 10 years, whenever we had to cut the budget, we never cut the budget of police and fire. They were held sacred as core services. However, we got to the point in the past few years where cutting other services like libraries, recreation, and parks were no longer acceptable to the people. So we deliberately set up a game such that the only way to bring enough money in fund parks and recreation was to make direct cuts to the police and fire departments. What surprised us was the citizens’ willingness to do that. This was powerfully important to us.
SD: What’s key is that other methods such as surveys, don’t give citizens the richness of choice that these games do. For instance, if you give a citizen a survey, they’ll always put public safety first, but it was only by working through the tradeoffs that it became evident to citizens that they had to go beyond their gut [instinct] to decide whether or not they were willing to live with one less person on a police force in order to keep a library open. You don’t get that level of collaboration and participation with other [methods].
KH: Another thing that surprised and relieved me was this game showed that local governments were very willing to step forward and take responsibility for changes in their own neighborhoods, and that they were hungry for tools and support to do that. One of the things we heard a lot in the feedback portion of the game was that citizens understood that cuts need to happen, but that they were not willing to sit complacently on their heels and wanted to be part of the solution.
Has this game made citizens more willing to engage in policy making and has city policy given them this opportunity?
KH: It’s had a significant impact in the area of budget policymaking, but has cracked the door open in a number of other areas. For instance, [some of us in the city manager’s office] have an ongoing conversation looking at how we can engage communities based on a recent rise in burglaries. What we’ve seen is that new and innovative ways of involving the community can really pay off if done well. I believe we’re becoming more open to looking at a whole range of policy issues through these new lenses. We may or may not do a game on burglaries specifically, but it shows that games are a new tool in our toolkit in terms of policymaking, and while it’s not an end-all-be-all, use of games and gameification is becoming more accepted in policymaking.
If another city were to implement a game to do exactly what you did, what advice would you give them when running their own game?
KH: First, do it on something that’s meaningful and important to both the community and the administration, and have a reasonable expectation that the results of the game will be used to guide policy. If it’s not that, then don’t do it. If it’s just a charade, then don’t do it. Second, understand the level of commitment internal to the city that’s required. Because this is so heavy on community involvement, people tend to think that’s where the effort is, but the actual effort comes in the game development and getting subject matter experts on hand, so ensure that you have enough senior staff time on hand and assign a staffer to navigate the game to see it through.
SD: You need both bottom-up support and top-down direction. If you don’t have that, then likelihood of success goes down significantly. In San Jose, we had that, which helped make it a success. As Kip said, if the effort doesn’t have any effect on policy, it will kill the enthusiasm of the people.
KH: The game structure is very cleanly executed, but the conversations around the table and the decision-making process is messy. The city has to be able to tolerate messiness and uncertainty.
Before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts on how budget games have affected policymaking in San Jose, in general?
KH: One of the things that came out of this game process was a real energy from the community to get involved. We’re creating a new game structure called Great Neighborhoods that guides neighborhoods through the process of creating and defining their own priority projects. This is supposed to be a replicable, scalable way for neighborhoods to interact with themselves, and we’re hoping that a great deal of community energy can be harnessed.
With budgeting, we usually have three levers we can pull: cut funding, bring in new revenue, or increase the efficiency of the workforce. I think there’s a fourth lever, which we call awakening neighborhood capacity, and that a lot of neighborhood capacity isn’t just providing information to policymakers, but in actually doing the work that makes a great city or a great neighborhood. As excited as we are about the potential of budget to shape policy, we think that this is an unexplored and untapped realm, that we think will be a very rich vein to mine for years to come.
Thank you both for your time.
Jason Kumar is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University and a former intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Science & Technology Innovation Program. He previously worked in supply-chain consulting and has a background in industrial engineering. He is interested in the effects of new technologies and tactics on national security policy.