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.