Category: Community

Citizens of San José play Innovation Game® to prioritize the city budget

Build your budget
from eric731 on Flickr

The start of a new year means budget time once again. Councillors have dozens, maybe hundreds of choices to make, and the tradeoffs aren’t often clear. It’s a daunting task to make those decisions, especially for new councillors. They want to better understand the priorities of citizens regarding key budget initiatives, but how in a time and cost-effective manner, in a way that people want to participate?

Engagement with a twist: the city of San José brought in community leaders last Saturday to try their hand at making budget decisions (Mercury News article). They played budget prioritization games, a variation of an Innovation Game® called Buy a Feature. Diverse groups of citizens sat at tables, each possessing play money to purchase items. The key is that no one has enough money to buy the items they care most about – they have to persuade others to pool their money together, and that’s the magic of the game. Each table group also had a list of reductions to choose from to free up money to spend, provided they reached unanimous consent to cut something, like the building of a new police station.

Photos of game materials (best viewed in full screen):

I was there, at the invitation of Luke Hohmann, CEO of Innovation Games, to work as a volunteer observer and learn from the experience, in the hopes of holding a similar event in the Sault. For corporations, this type of event isn’t so unique, but for government, it’s pioneering stuff. My role was to capture both quantitative data, like who spent money on what, and qualitative data, like why an item was purchased, how the discussions went, what items were easy for the group not to purchase. After 90 minutes I had 30 index cards worth of data from our table.

Photos of my work and the team (best viewed in full screen):

As an observer, the passion people have about their city was evident, the options they had to choose from mattered. They struggled between choices, like funding a children’s health initiative vs a fund for community-based organizations. To help citizens, subject matter experts from the city were available to answer questions. People are passionate about their community, and when given a chance for meaningful engagement, they jump to the challenge.

So what was the result?

The Innovation Games team will report back on the results within a couple of weeks, which I will then share.

I interviewed two participants to get their impressions. In a nutshell, what I heard was the event went well beyond their expectations, based on their experience from previous years. This one was highly collaborative, informative, and even (gasp) FUN! Watch the short 1 minute videos to see for yourself.

A true measure of an event like this is that besides better understanding citizen priorities, a community grows closer together. This event delivered on that. They heard each other’s stories and dreams. They shared their diverse knowledge to make better decisions, collectively, and they had a fun time getting to know each other.

I believe this is just the start, an appetizer for what is possible in how citizens and government can engage each other. My intention is to learn from the San José experience and try a similar event in my home town of Sault Ste. Marie. I’m already getting enthusiastic feedback from members of council and Mayor Amaroso, who are also passionate about citizen engagement. Thanks to Luke and his hard-working Innovation Games® team, who poured in over two months of effort to make this one day happen. Citizen engagement, stronger community and better budgets – that’s worth investing in.

More photos:

Watch history unfold as first female Sault Mayor inaugurated

I’ve never been to Council Chambers before, except to see my friend Mhem from Burma become a Canadian citizen. On Monday, I’ll made my second trip for another historic event. Debbie Amaroso became the first female mayor in Sault Ste. Marie. Debbie is an incredible person and I am excited about the passion she has for community engagement.

I was there with my iPhone, OWLE, and tripod streaming the event live. You can watch the recording below. The best part is the first five minutes, with the pipe and drum procession, singing of O Canada by a darling little girl, followed by Mayor Amaroso’s swearing in and speech.

ChangeCamp: An organizer’s perspective

Three weeks ago I had the awesome privilege of facilitating an open space event for the first time. Called ChangeCamp, it was held in my home town of Sault Ste. Marie. This is my reflection on the day as an organizer and facilitator, in the hopes other ChangeCamp groups can learn and be inspired by our local experiment.

ChangeCamp Sault is both the fulfillment and start of a personal dream. I attended the first ChangeCamp at Toronto in January of 2009, then my first experience of open space. Over 200 participants actively engaged in answering the question: how can we re-imagine how government and citizens engage each other in an age of participation? It was an exciting day, full of shared ideas, new connections and belief that we can act to shape our collective future. I knew then that I wanted to create that same experience in my own city, which would be something entirely new. In open space, the people who come set the agenda and engage in open participatory dialogue. At the time the idea felt risky – how would people respond?

The event was held at Sault College in the Native Student Centre, a circular room with plenty of glass windows to let in the sun, a perfect gathering spot. The College was very supportive, providing the facilities at no cost and even covering some of the food cost. We had a lunch catered by their food provider, provided free to participants.

We were pleased to have over 50 people register for the event, given a busy weekend of events and the start of summer holidays. The group had a healthy mix of old and young, men and women, newcomers and long-time residents. To my surprise, I knew hardly anyone there. Due to other events a number of people left early or came late, which made facilitating a little more challenging.

We chose to keep the day shorter by having 3 rounds of sessions, including a ‘getting to action’ time at the end of the day, and a brief lunch. My experience with PodCamp is that people run out of energy mid-way through the afternoon. This turned out to be a good choice. A number of people had left before the end, and those that stayed still had energy for the closing circle.

Setting the stage during the opening circle felt like the most important part of facilitating the day. I shared some of the history that led up to ChangeCamp, including Ignite Sault and Soo Podcamp, two smaller event ‘experiments’ that were tried to test the waters. I asked people to get up and sit beside two people they didn’t know and, without instructions, people started introducing themselves – a healthy sign. The rules of open space: 1/n, bumblebee and butterfly were covered, and the grid explained. People were challenged to make the conversations they came to have happen.

What was the result?

Mark Kuznicki, founder of ChangeCamp likes to say that there are two outcomes: the connections made and the content created. Both are valuable. Through being connected, people felt encouraged, with greater hope for our community’s future. One newcomer remarked that she now felt a part of the community.

My great epiphany is that these connections are the seeds of change. No matter our cause, our ambitions, our hopes and our passions, to bring about change, we must also invest in building community, for a connected community is at the root of all the change we seek. I’ve spent time on many causes and issues over the years, often feeling like little progress is being made, or that bringing about change is hard, at times grueling work. ChangeCamp showed me a different path. I’m having more fun and feeling more successful by nurturing community, through which change will occur.

Tips for organizers

These were essential ingredients for us having a successful event:

  1. Live the ChangeCamp experience as you organize the event. When the organizing team works in an open, participative way, where individual passions are nurtured and talents harnessed, you have the nucleus for a successful event. I used my Agile experience to help with team formation, planning and facilitation.
  2. People matter. This was the most diverse group I’ve ever worked with. We had marketing, technical and political savvy. One person had a lot of spare time to do a lot of necessary grunt work. Combined we had numerous key connections in the community. A group of 7 people felt about right for us.
  3. Tools matter. We’re all busy volunteers who need to work together effectively with the limited time we have. Digital tools are necessary, but only work if there is buy-in. Our group found a “sweet spot” of simplicity and feature-set that amplified our efforts significantly. Next week, we’ll be presenting our tool set at a ChangeSalon event. We’ll post a follow-up to that event to let you in on our tool stack.
  4. Event design matters. Mark Kuznicki, ChangeCamp papa helped a lot with shaping our event. Combine expert knowledge from someone like Mark with knowledge of the community and your goals for the event to help determine the best format. We were fortunate to have learned from an earlier event in designing this one.

I feel like I could easily write 4 more posts on our experience, but we’ll see. My commitment to blog writing is not what it used to be.

Good luck with your next event. Hopefully I’ve shared something useful. Come back in about a week to learn more about tools that can help your team succeed.