Budget Games

An Interview with Laura Richardson

I came across Budget Games a couple of years ago while I was looking for case studies of organisations that have applied agile practices, mindsets and culture outside the usual domain of software development. I made a note to write a blog about it but somehow never got around it it. But serendipity exists - and I found myself at a conference, sitting next to Laura Richardson - VP of Sales and Business Development for Conteneo and Director of Partnerships at the Every Voice Engaged Foundation. Amongst other roles, Laura has been responsible for coordinating and training our team of volunteers for Budget Games for the last few years. It took me a few more months, but I got the opportunity to ask her a few questions about Budget Games.

Evan: What’s the elevator pitch for Budget Games? Why is it important?

Laura: Budget Games is a collaboration framework that engages citizens in a real-time, collaborative process (online or in-person) where groups of five to eight people work together to make choices that impact a budget.

Evan: It seems obvious in hindsight, but what value do cities get from engaging with their citizens in this way? And how is this similar to the way companies engage their employees through your Innovation Games?

Laura: Well, let me first compare this approach to another designed to obtain community input. Surveys provide a glimpse into the mind of a person at a specific point in time. Surveys are a great tool for questions about things unlikely to change after conversations. Let me give you an example. “Do you like acorn squash?” Your answer is unlikely to change no matter how long we discuss it! Conversely, “should we fund increased library hours by cutting the graffiti abatement program?” Your initial answer could change depending on discussions. Treating complex decisions that communities need to make around budgeting as if it is a clear cut as whether you like certain vegetables is not a solid course of action.

Budget Games provides the framework for enabling citizens to discuss complex issues, tradeoffs and time horizons in a way that supports the inevitable “change of mind” caused by meaningful conversations. Budget Games generates shared understanding, increases empathy and brings people together around choices and decisions. I guess the shortest way of putting this is that the process creates understanding and buy-in. It almost goes without saying that surveys cannot do this.

I have an example.

“A woman from an affluent neighborhood started the negotiations by purchasing code enforcement. She wanted to make sure the City was looking as good as possible. She changed her mind, however, when a mother from a less affluent part of the city described the dangers her children faced from gang violence — just walking to school wearing the wrong color jacket could leave her child harassed, beaten, or even worse. The emotional impact was visible because both women were crying by the time the ‘negotiations’ were finished. The table quickly aligned on purchasing projects designed to address gang violence. At the end of the Budget Games session, this group felt very aligned and satisfied with their resulting decisions. It was a powerful moment for the group and for the room when they explained what had happened.”

We see similar outcomes in our platforms when used for prioritizing features in product roadmaps and project portfolios inside corporations: collaboration provides a forum for understanding complex issues and making better choices. Most of my time at Conteneo is spent helping companies incorporate more voices into research, planning, innovation and agile. The rest of my time through Conteneo and The Every Voice Engaged Foundation is to use skills proven at making businesses more effective in cities and other communities that also need better outcomes and better methods for solving problems via engaged populations.

Evan: How much of the citizen’s input actually makes its way into the Budget?

Laura: This is an important question because it gets at a core principal around the desire of a city (or company for that matter) to invite in citizens (or employees) to collaborate with each other to find the best outcome possible. Ask questions about topics that you are willing and able to take action against. A city budget has many items that are not optional and therefore should probably not be included in a Budget Game. For example, insurance is not optional so including it would be distracting at best.

However, other items are more flexible. The city of San José asked residents to consider whether the city should spend budget on the police helicopter program. A majority of the tables did not fund this line item during a Budget Games event and ultimately, the program was cancelled. The city also reduced firefighters on firetrucks from five to four as a direct result of the process. Funding for libraries was increased, again, as a direct result. Our experience shows that when cities include residents in the process of budgeting using the Budget Games framework, residents are able to work through the difficult choices and tradeoffs that city leaders grapple with and through discussions with other residents, they are able to make choices that reflect their values rather than strict interpretations of political party platforms. It’s a process that brings people together rather than intensifying division. It creates insight into the preferences of residents that builds confidence for city officials and enables them to make better budget decisions as they know what more residents want and why they made the choices they did. It is empowering for residents and for city leaders.

Evan: What were some of the more unexpected findings that have come out of all the Budget Games that you’ve played?

Laura: Well, our political environment seems to indicate that citizens value public safety above all else and that corresponds to the police force… how many officers should we hire, how can we increase officer retention etc. However, 2014 residents considered initiatives such as 120 Sworn Police Officers for $25M or Expanding Branch Library Hours for $4.6M and I was surprised to see how many tables of residents believed that a strong public library system was a critical factor for the success of their city and while expanding the police force was supported, it was supported at a much smaller level than I expected in order to ensure that money was available for libraries.

Evan: What about special interests. How do the facilitators keep a robust and honest conversation going, and minimise the impact of special interest groups?

Laura: For the in person Budget Games, San José creates table groups ahead of time so that no single neighborhood is over represented in each group. Then, the structure of Budget Games taps into some fundamental game structures that people naturally understand. Humans have used games as a way to learn and work together for thousands of years and when people agree to goals, rules & constraints that game structures provide, collaboration is much more effective and fair. That said, The Every Voice Engaged Foundation also trains 100’s of new facilitators for each Budget Games event which has the domino effect of enabling other cities to organize Budget Games events as well. This combination of training which is funded by donations, the Budget Games structure and a well-planned event help to ensure that all participants feel heard and can contribute in a meaningful way.

Evan: So what’s next? How do you build on this success?

Laura: I should point out that the Agile community has been our biggest source of facilitator talent and I am sure you can guess why! The Agile Manifesto spells out values which are very consistent with the notion that residents should be invited to collaborate with each other in order to solve the problems that their communities face. Budgeting is one type of problem that we help cities solve through an active volunteer network. Through the use of other frameworks that we’ve developed (I am thinking specifically about Common Ground for Action which we created in partnership with the Kettering Foundation), we are helping school districts and other communities tackle wicked problems around education, health and environmental issues.

People who want to get involved can do so in two ways. First, help fund more training so that people can learn how to facilitate and even run Budget Games events in their own cities. Jurgen DeSmet is an Agilist and was a volunteer facilitator in San José. He then brought the process back to Kortrijk Belgium. This is a story that we want to duplicate a thousand more times. The more people we are able to train via in-person and online courses, the more positive impact we can have.

Second, as I am sure your readership includes a lot of agile practitioners, please visit the Every Voice Engaged booth at Agile 2016 in Atlanta. Last year, our foundation was able to connect with over 100 new volunteers at Agile 2015 in DC where our CEO gave the keynote address so we decided to attend the conference again this year with a goal to expand the network of trained facilitators keen to help their cities engage citizens more effectively. We want to make it possible for cities to ditch surveys for budgeting and other complex problems and feel safe in creating collaborative events designed to increase understanding and buy-in.

Third, sign up as an interested volunteer. As training options are funded and available, you will be invited to attend.

Evan: Where can readers find out more? Anything else you want to add?

Laura: Here is my shameless plea for financial help! Visit our crowdfunding page at https://www.crowdrise.com/letsgrowevef/fundraiser/evef, donate and proudly wear our signature orange t-shirt!

You can read about the history of Budget Games and download a kit by visiting this link on our foundation’s website: http://everyvoiceengaged.org/solutions/budget-games/

About Kettering: https://www.kettering.org/ About Common Ground for Action: https://www.nifi.org/en/common-ground-action

For more about Conteneo: http://conteneo.co

And please contact me directly for questions about our solutions agile and innovation in the enterprise or for more information about the Every Voice Engaged Foundation.

laura.richardson@conteneo.co and/or laura@everyvoiceengaged.org