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Written by Luke Hohmann
on January 30, 2014

In January 2014, San José, CA residents had a chance to influence their city's forthcoming budget by playing games. Representatives from San José Neighborhood Associations and the Neighborhoods Commission and Youth Commission joined 100s of their fellow residents  to share their perspectives and opinions regarding budgeting priorities for the City of San José. This year's event was the fourth annual Budget Games, produced by Conteneo for the City of San José, and included, for the first time, online games to expand game play  to 100s more San José residents. (And was supported by Microsoft through  it's donation of 100+ Surface Tablets for the event.)


Putting the Fun in Participatory Budgeting

The goal for the Budget Games is the same as other participatory budgeting initiatives -- provide citizens with the ability to participate in their government's budgeting process and provide city officials with actionable insight as they make the difficult decisions about city resources.

Since 2011, Conteneo has produced a specialized version of its “Buy a Feature” game for the City of San José. These Budget Games have been used to engage neighborhood leaders regarding priorities for spending, tradeoffs, and budget cuts for the City’s annual $2.9 billion budget. During the second year of Budget Games, 80% of the recommendations generated by participants were adopted and integrated into the City’s budget.

“Resident input is critical to San José’s community-based budget process,” said Mayor Chuck Reed. “When we’ve had shortfalls, our priority setting session provided early input to help rank difficult choices.

“More recently, we’ve added police officers, restored funding for gang prevention and intervention, and opened shuttered library branches based on feedback from our community.”

2014 Results: Budget Matters
This year residents who played both the in-person and online games were given 24 hypothetical funding proposals and the budget expected from a proposed ¼ cent or ½ cent sales tax ($34M and $68M) and were asked to purchase the items that were most important to them. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) representing Police, Fire, Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, Libraries, Budget and other disciplines, answered questions related to proposals during the game, as requested by the players. The games were facilitated by Conteneo's global team of Certified Collaboration Architects, who donated their time for the event.

Road repair, fire and police department staffing, funding of community centers and public library hours are among the topics that residents prioritized during the 13 in-person games and 21 online games. Analysis of game results revealed that residents of San Jose continue to be concerned about public safety, gang and crime prevention, and that game "purchases" correlate with the available budget. Residents who played the game with potential revenue from the larger tax increase purchased more expensive items, made more solo purchases and invested more in pavement maintenance and a contingency reserve.  See the final Budget Games Results here.

“Like many cities, San José continues to face difficult budget situations that require tough prioritizations with direct effects on San José residents,” said Luke Hohmann, CEO and founder of Conteneo. “In the past, these effects have included reduced community services, employee layoffs and pay cuts, and deferred maintenance to balance the budget.

“Along with the city, we strongly believe that residents should have a voice in this process since budget decisions can make a big difference in the quality of life for all members of the community.”

Check out Luke Hohmann's presentation to the City of San Jose on the results here.

To bring Budget Games to your community, contact Conteneo.

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