Budget puzzles: more harm than good

Agile Australia 2016 keynote speaker Luke Hohmann returns for the second part of his guest blog.

Budget puzzles: more harm than good

Luke Hohmann

In my last post about Participatory Budgeting I discussed why surveys suck when used as a tool to understand budget priorities. But there is a game-related evolution of surveys, so-called “budget puzzles”, that are even more harmful than surveys because they create an intense feeling of despair and harden political opinion. In an era of increasingly partisan politics, budget puzzles are making things worse, not better. What’s especially sad about this is that it appears to be the exact opposite of the goals of the organisations who are promoting budget puzzles. In this post, I’ll elaborate on why budget puzzles are considered harmful and show how collaborative participatory budgeting is the superior approach.


Budget puzzles in action

I define a budget puzzle as an interactive simulation in which a solo player strives to complete the typically nearly impossible task of balancing a city, state or national budget.

An example of a budget puzzle is the New York Times Budget Puzzle, in which you attempt to balance the national budget by considering various combinations of spending reductions and revenue increases. Spending reductions are grouped in areas such as domestic programs and foreign aid, military spending, health care, social security, existing tax reforms, while revenue increases (which are always fees or taxes) are identified as modifications or new choices.

Let’s consider three admittedly broad approaches to trying to solve the puzzle: one emphasising what might be considered stereotypically conservative choices, another more liberal, and third a balanced mix of choices that attempts to affect every area of the budget. In this first pass, I’ll try and keep the choices “moderate” and explore the results. If possible, I recommend that you try the puzzle yourself before reading further.

As a moderate conservative, I see that capping medicare growth, raising the age for social security, changing how we measure inflation and enacting medical malpractice reform saves about $71B, leaving me $347B over budget.  This has me thinking hard about cuts to military spending, but I don’t make them. As a moderate liberal, I too might raise the age for social security, but I’m going to focus on the military, reducing nuclear arsenals, navy and air force fleets, and troop levels. This save nets me $102B, leaving me $306B over budget. As a moderate who believes that all areas of the budget must be reduced, I make a few choices in every area. I cut some domestic programs, reduce the size of the federal government, raise social security and medicare eligibility, and so forth. I also considered various tax increases. In my experiment I was able to save $173B – less than half of the $418B I need to save.

Curiously, the moderate approach generated the best results! Ultimately, though, every approach failed. None of the “moderate approaches” were able to get the job done. Now, you can argue that this is OK — that the benefit of interacting with the budget puzzle was to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem and how hard it will be to solve it.

The problem is that most will have the impulse to try again. After all, thanks to video games, we’re used to “failing”, getting a new life, and trying all over again. According to video game designers, this is (always) good! I learned something even though I failed.

I was given the task to balance the budget, so dammit, I’m going to try again. And since I’m a solo player, with no need to justify my ideas or opinions with anyone else, and no requirement to actually think about the feasibility of the choices I’m making, I’m going to solve this puzzle.

Budget puzzles harden political will

What I learned is that being moderate isn’t going to work. I have to be extreme. Hey, that’s OK, right? It is just a puzzle and I’m not really doing anything that matters because I’m “playing a game”. That makes a bunch of choices easier

As a hardened conservative, I start by choosing every possible savings associated with both health care and social security. This doesn’t even get me half of the way to my goal, so I choose every possible cut in domestic programs and foreign aid. Now I’m making real progress! I’m just over half. So, I keep going! I add a National Sales Tax. I don’t fully reach my goal without raising taxes, so I grudgingly accept that I can save $323B by being a great conservative. And if my zeal for solving the puzzle overtakes me I might even raise a few taxes. As a hardened liberal, I start by cutting all of the military programs I can and raising taxes on the rich. Ha! Just this gets me to $316B in saving! I raise a bunch more taxes and let certain taxes expire and I get the magical hit of dopamine that tells me I’ve solved the puzzle. There really is no need to try a balanced approach. I just randomly select a bunch of stuff to see which combinations of choices produce the right result, with no genuine investment in the outcome.

Of course, all of this work produces an epic #fail: none of these choices could ever be implemented. More importantly, in our political system no one person gets to make these decisions. Solving the budget problem requires collaboration, negotiation, listening – not just discussion.

After a solo attempt at solving the problem, the player leaves with hardened positions and is almost certainly less willing to engage in the collaborative dialogue, shared actions and compromises that are so desperately needed in today’s political landscape.

Winning the budget puzzle means losing the political process.

Conteneo’s Collaborative Budgeting vs Budget Puzzles

Our approach to Participatory Budgeting is neither a survey or a puzzle. Our approach is real-time, collaborative budgeting in which small groups of five to eight people work together to make choices that impact a budget.

Like our work in San José in 2011, sometimes these choices are not capable of fully balancing a budget in just one year. But, like the collective work done by San José over many years, these choices can create a path to a balanced and sustainable budget.

This table will help you consider the differences between collaborative budgeting, surveys and puzzles. Note that while in many cases the goals are similar, the process of trying to reach these goals can create exactly the opposite of the intended result.

Dimension Collaborative budgeting Budget Survey Budget Puzzle
Producer Goals? Develop data that elected officials can use to take action. Not just priorities, but the reasons behind the priorities and the conditions of acceptance for proposed actions. Identify priorities of the public. Educate the public.
Participant Goals? Collaborate with other citizens to solve hard problems. Express my priorities. Solve the puzzle.
How do you “win”? You win when you’ve found what organisational theorists refer to as an “equifinal meaning”. This isn’t consensus, per-se, but an agreement on a course of action. Take the survey – I can express myself! Balance the budget.
What is the impact? Considerable! Collaborative Participatory Budgeting directly affects the budget of a city or other governmental institution. Moderate. Survey data helps elected officials make decisions, but method bias leads to less actionable results. None – which means being completely silly is just fine.
Negative Unintended Consequence None. Citizens don’t explore the causal effects of their choices or build relationships with others. As shown in this post, puzzles harden political will and increase negative, partisan politics.

The choice is clear: while surveys and puzzles may be well-intentioned, collaborative, real-time participatory budgeting the superior approach to generating actionable results.

Luke Hohmann is CEO of Conteneo and will be giving a keynote presentation at Agile Australia 2016. You can also register for Luke’s workshops in Sydney and Melbourne.


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