Budget Game in San Jose

Make games, not war to debate over city budget

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Have you ever wondered where the city budget goes to? You can see no reason why arts & culture funding has recently been cut? Or why, suddenly, ‘with no apparent reason’ your local doctor’s surgery has changed location? You are irriteted because the city ignores you. Your tension is rising. Budget Games main idea is to release the tension.

Let us tell you a story. There was a city – San Jose. It was 2011, and the recession was speeding up. The authorities were doing their best to limit the expenditure. As a result the citizens’ opinion of the City Council was plummeting. There was also an Innovation Games company, designing serious games for business. Among others, they created ‘Buy a Feature’, helping the brands’ representatives to check, what the buyers think of their product and what improvements are still necessary.

One day, the founder of Innovation Games (Luke Hohmann) randomly found himself sitting next to San José’s Chief Strategist Kim Walesh, and  while chatting and sharing experiences a new idea was born; to apply ‘Buy a Feature’ solutions and techniques for the improvement of the city budget. As a result, the city leaders got together and played the game, leading to significantly  fewer complaints. The city organized the game for the four consecutive years.


Luke Hohmann said:


Last year one thing I remember is, in the tax increase, one table we  gave citizens about 90 minutes to play the game and one table argued about the taxes for 87 minutes and we said there is 5 or 3 minutes left, they finally agreed to raise, the taxes needed the fund what they really wanted to do and it was this really big debate and one of the citizens said: “If you had asked me coming in to this, I’m a pretty staunch conservative, if you asked me if I would ever raise taxes I would say no, but when I actually looked at what we needed to do and we can’t do what we need to do and that we raise taxes”, and I can’t believe that happened to me.

The game’s success might come from the offering the citizens of San Jose the opportunity to take on the roles of the city’s authorities. Everybody could try for themselves to fairly divide the money among all the segments of the city’s budget  (there is never enough money during the game, so the implementaion of savings was necessary). All in all, it was the residents idea to shorten the libraries working hours or limiting the staffing of fire brigades’ cars.  However, worth appreciating is also the city’s attitude towards the game. The authorities took it seriously and drew conclusions regarding which expenditures are a priority for the residents.


During the first two year, city introduced 80% of residents’ suggestions.


As they finalized their budget priorities ranking, the additional information led to comments such as “Should we not spend money on that priority since there are more important priorities?” and “Wow! Now I understand the trade offs between spending and available revenue.

Luke Hohmann is still developing Budget Games. Since 2013, he has been doing it as part of Conteneo, a company concentrating on developing cooperation. Meanwhile, not only has Luke’s idea taken off in San Jose and the US, but also in Europe. The Belgian town of Kortrijk was the first one to play the Budget Game. Also, since September 2014  Centre for Systems Solutions implemented the project in Polish cities of Lublin and Swidnik. The residents of those cities are playing a participatory budget game – Gra o Budzet (Budget Game).

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