Sunday, February 24, 2013

San Jose Budget Games 2013

"Whatever is the problem, community is the answer" - Margaret J. Weatley.

I've been reading some of Margaret's writings this week and her words have been ringing in my ears as I remember participating as a volunteer facilitator in the 3rd annual San Jose Budget Games on January 26. Somewhere close to 200 community leaders, politicians, city staff, and volunteer facilitators gathered to have conversations about the city budget priorities. This wasn't a typical town hall meeting where the city presents the budget priorities and community members gather at a microphone to voice their displeasure. Instead, 20 tables of 8-10 people gathered to play a version of Buy a Feature by Innovation Games. Through the game, each table was asked to wrestle with and agree on both where to spend the budget (more police? more library hours?) and whether or not to increase city revenues (increase sales tax? create a parcel tax?) to fund more initiatives. San Jose elected officials, police chief, fire chief, city clerks and others were available to answer any questions.

As a facilitator it was interesting to watch a diverse group of people talk to each other about priorities for their city. Here are a few observations that I found interesting:
  • Though they didn't always agree, the game produced some great discussions.
  • Disagreements at our table ended with increased understanding.
  • The discussions were neighbour to neighbour vs. citizen to politician.
  • I heard citizens talking positively about their city politicians ("I don't always agree with them, but I like their approach - they are serious about engaging us in helping making the city better").
  • Many citizens were playing the game a second or third time - asking a community for help and then acting on their responses creates engagement and joint commitment.
  • Relationships were built rather than fractured ... at a budget meeting!
  • This approach to solving problems can create a better community, neighourhood, team, company, city, etc.

San Jose isn't the only group to start embracing a community approach to problem solving. I'm sure if you reflect on your own experiences you'll recall examples of community approaches producing excellent results. Wheatley describes several similar examples in her article "It's Time for the Heroes to Go Home" and in the agile community we've embraced this approach through self organizing teams and frequent retrospectives.

I don't know if I'll be able to participate in a future budget game, but I'll always be grateful to the city of San Jose and the Every Voice Engaged foundation (the non-profit arm of Innovation Games) for the opportunity to be involved this year. If we ever do this in Winnipeg, count me in.

Finally, along with this reminder to 'take it to the team', here are a few practical methods you can use to do so:

 (You can read more about the budget games in the Financial Times and Bloomsberg Business Week)