Games: Building Engagement Into The District Budgeting Process

Andrew-Simon2Why Games are Important: Most people realize that the yearly school budget process is serious work. Too often, there is too little money, too many funding requirements and more demand than available funds. Fortunately, one very successful and productive way to facilitate, improve and move the budget process along is the use of games. The literature on games suggests that meaningful play and/or serious games add significant value to many decision-making processes, including budgeting.

So a fundamental question is: how exactly can games help this process along?

Cognitive experience teaches us that both play and games allow participants to provide input or participate in the development of new ideas in non-threatening ways. By engaging multiple forms of intelligence (verbal, visual and strategic), games or serious play enable greater volumes of information to be shared. Moreover, they encourage collaboration and build consensus. Games also create high levels of emotion that bring about a sharper, more concentrated focus for participants.

Another key question is: Should the yearly budget process become an opportunity for the various stakeholders and decision makers to reset their thinking, readjust their priorities, refocus and consider innovative approaches to solving annual budget issues, challenges and problems?

We know from experience that the more ideas (solutions) that are developed, the more likely that several great ones will emerge. Also, we know that inhibitions are reduced when someone engages in play. Play allows one to be creative and think outside the box without risk; also, serious play or games generate an enormous amount of new ideas, strategies, solutions and options. Hopefully at least one of these will have a significant impact on improving the school district budget!

Collaboration was mentioned earlier. Game-playing becomes a team effort, and incumbent in this team effort is the subconscious requirement that participants understand where other team members are coming from, and also understand where they are in the process. Additionally, gaming introduces randomness, which allows for an abundance of creativity.

Using a Game to Build a Real City Budget

What has been discussed so far may sound a little too theoretical. Now let’s discuss some actual experience we at Simon Associates have had in the governmental arena. For the past three years, the City of San Jose (California) has used Budget Games developed by The Innovation Games Company® to help guide its budget process. These games were used to educate citizens, gain more input from them, and establish actionable quantitative and qualitative feedback for city officials. (I invite you to watch this 6 minute video on the Budget Games conducted by the City of San Jose in January 2012.)

In San Jose, a list of potential discretionary additions to the budget are proposed each January with all the appropriate information, rationale and costs. Second, lists of proposed budget cuts are drawn up with the same type of information. Then a third list is developed that contains revenue increases to fund the budget, using sales tax increases and/or new bonding authority.

Approximately 100 citizens take part in San Jose’s budget game process, with participants coming from different backgrounds with different agendas. The game is organized so that 6-8 people are seated at a table, and there are many tables. Each table may have a district leader, a garden club member or a youth commission representative—having a variety of different views and experiences at each one is key to the success of the game.

The rules of the game are few but very important. Each person sitting around the table must list their priorities and tell their fellow citizens why their ranking is important. In order to fund, reduce or eliminate a service or affect a revenue increase, the team must come to a unanimous agreement around the table. Thus the negotiating process begins, but not in a threatening way because after all, this is a game.

Why does this work?

The table structure creates a collaborative environment. Citizens/participants develop a critical understanding of the various points of view. And they discuss, negotiate and compromise because that is what good citizenship is about.

Building Engagement into the School District Budgeting Process

If Budget Games works for city government, it can work successfully in the development of a district school budget. Remember, there are several critical outcomes resulting from the gaming process. First, it makes citizens much more knowledgeable about how a budget is developed and how decisions are made and executed. Second, participants begin to understand where flexibility exists, what is fixed and what is variable, what can be changed and what is mandated. Third, it allows district leadership to understand community priorities, wishes and interests…and on what issues or topics citizens can build consensus. Finally, the use of Budget Games can very successfully generate many innovative approaches to the funding or budget process.

Perhaps the best part of this gaming process is that it can be tailored to meet the individual approval process of each individual district. It can also set a precedent for expanding transparency, decision-making, public engagement and understanding, and public support for budget and other local policy decisions.

Would Budget Games work for your municipality? Get in touch with me and let’s discuss!