Success Story #1: City of San José Budget Games

Great things happen when people engage–even from middle seats on a cramped plane.

Innovation Games® founder Luke Hohmann and City of San José’s Chief Strategist Kim Walesh were squashed together in coach on a cross-country flight.  After their laptop batteries died, they exchanged the usual “what do you do” pleasantries and joked about the perils of being tall.  As the conversation unfolded though, they discovered a common passion for bringing innovation into all aspects of their work.


As Luke described his work with Every Voice Engaged® Foundation and his book, Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play, Kim had an “aha” moment.  “Why not apply the same problem-solving techniques that are driving innovation in Silicon Valley to the challenges facing our diverse city?”  That led to introductions, six months of planning and a grand civic experiment that answered the question “Why Try?”

Why not, indeed.  Like many US cities, San José has faced significant budget deficits over the past several years.  Deficits mean choices between cuts and raising taxes … difficult issues that tend to divide rather than unite communities.

Kim seized on the possibility of engaging with the community in a more meaningful way than surveys and other traditional market research techniques.  In response, Luke volunteered to design a series of structured activities that would provide actionable feedback to city leaders as they entered their annual budget planning process.  He didn’t stop there, though.  He enlisted his fellow highly trained Innovation Games producers, facilitators and other staff to volunteer their time to make the project happen.

For the original session in 2011, Luke and his team modified an Innovation Game known as Buy a Feature Buy a Feature has been used by companies like HP, Cisco and Adobe to assist teams in prioritizing product features and project portfolios.  For the City of San José, the event was renamed Budget Games and modified to include a number of program proposals and scenarios.  Participants were given a fixed budget to spend and were then split into 11 tables of 7-9 participants who were free to use the scenarios provided or to create their own.

Players negotiated directly with each other for both purchases and cuts.  Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) like the Fire and Police Chiefs provided on-demand education and answered questions.  Volunteer facilitators and observers encouraged quiet participants to speak up.  They also kept the day moving and helped keep the peace when emotions ran high.

Although each table worked independently, the results were surprisingly congruent.  For example, eight of 11 tables selected pavement maintenance.  In addition, while seven tables voted for a Workers Comp reform plan that would save the city an estimated $2M, not a single table voted to reduce the Children’s Health Initiative or eliminate the Park Ranger program.

One unanimous “purchase” was support for Gang Prevention programs.  Perceived as a systemic threat to all neighborhoods in the city, citizens chose to invest in the issue, addressing it in a comprehensive way rather than, for instance, simply putting more police on the streets.  In 2011, 10 out of 12 citizen player tables chose to fund programs by reducing Fire Truck staffing from a minimum of five firefighters on each truck to four.  This saved the city an estimated $5M that could be redirected for Gang Prevention programs.

According to Assistant City Manager Kip Harkness, “Events like these are the only way to have a truly participatory democracy—they give both citizens and leaders alike a mechanism to debate ideas and solve problems constructively without automatically defaulting to party lines.“

Budget Games returned in 2012, with a twist.  Building on the success of the original event, citizen engaged again with an even more diverse group of players.  “The successes achieved in 2011 led to even greater enthusiasm for the 2012 event,” said Harkness.

This time, however, the ability to raise or lower taxes was on the table.  This incorporated an even more realistic simulation as well as an additional layer of complexity.  It also resulted in a much richer understanding of citizen’s priorities as well as insights into their tolerance for change.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the 2012 Budget Games was that most tables voted not to spend the entire budget, saving a small portion to cover future forecasted deficits.  Even after doing the hard work of raising taxes, lowering spending, etc., participants took great satisfaction in their ability to demonstrate fiscal restraint.

In addition to helping reveal priorities and deep motivations that would have otherwise remained buried, the 2012 Budget Games provided the Mayor’s office with actionable information that informed 80% of the final City Budget recommendations.

So keep an open mind and be prepared to open up next time you’re stuck in a middle seat.  Great things happen when people engage.  Even in coach.