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City of Cupertino – Budget Workshop Story

Case Story

Community:City of Cupertino (Santa Clara County)

Population: 55,551

Summary: Workshops Based on Board Game Metaphor

(Please note that while Cupertino no longer uses the budget board game described below, it is included as an example of local inventiveness in encouraging public discussion about budgeting.)

A board game metaphor helped Cupertino engage residents in budget discussions. The “Balance or Bust” game was presented at the agency’s annual “community congress,” which has used different formats depending on current issues and leadership styles. About 100 community members showed up to play the game when it was introduced.

The object of the game is to progress through one budget cycle and identify where to cut a specified amount from the city budget in order to eliminate a deficit. Players formed teams and worked to reach a majority decision on choices about reducing service levels, increasing operational efficiency, initiating economic development projects, raising fees, applying for grants and/or refinancing debt. Unanticipated events and accompanying costs — for example, the effects from natural disasters or a recession — added an extra degree of realism to the discussions.

Before the game was played, the city manager provided an overview of the budget, including details such as the distinction between restricted and general fund money, sources of revenue, and restrictions. Afterwards, elected officials listened as teams presented their conclusions and reflected on the process. Most people reported that reaching consensus and choosing among options is a lot harder than it looks. The game gave critics of the agency’s budget process a new perspective by experiencing the hard choices faced by elected decision-makers.

In the first use of the tool, public safety emerged as the highest priority among participants. Leaders were surprised, however, at the second highest priority: communications. Participants emphasized the need for public agencies to keep the community informed about what’s going on. This input influenced the agency’s approach to communications; it established its own AM radio station with community and emergency information and added video podcasts of city meetings and events to its website.

Not only did leaders learn about their constituents’ priorities in these workshops, but the public had fun and became better informed about city finances.

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