Yes, Virginia. Collaboration Can Solve Government | Jesse Fewell Yes, Virginia. Collaboration Can Solve Government – Jesse Fewell

Yes, Virginia. Collaboration Can Solve Government

By July 17, 2015Blog
Citizens seated at tables in city hall discussing

San Jose Citizens Collaborate on City Budget Tradeoffs. Courtesy

Americans often complain about their broken government’s inability to get anything done. Partisan politics separates us into us-versus-them camps, and people dig in their heels. Yet when we finally get action, as with the recent Supreme Court decisions and resumed talks with Cuba and Iran, it serves only to divide us further. It’s an ironic cycle:

Our divisions prevent political progress. Yet political progress furthers our divisions.

A Glimmer of Hope

Yet one hopeful idealist hopes to change all that with a technique borrowed from the business world. Luke Hohmann is the founder of consulting company Conteneo, and also the inventor of Innovation Games. If you know me, then you’ve probably heard me talk about Innovation Games. But as a quick summary, these “games” are structured facilitation agendas designed to gather insights as to what is truly important to people. Unlike those bland and dry customer surveys, these activities are intended to engage users, consumers, and customers directly.  From quietly observing how people use actually products (The Apprentice Game) to brainstorming a categorized set of desired features and benefits (Prune the Product Tree), product managers get deeper information than ever before. Both Luke and his company have had impressive success, installing this approach at Fortune 500 innovators from HP to Adobe.

However, in 2011 Luke had a unique idea: what if the most important product we build, is our government? He formed a non-profit to explore that idea, the Every Voice Engaged Foundation.

[tweetthis url=””]What if the most important product we build, is our government? Here’s the story of business #collaboration applied to politics [/tweetthis]

Here’s what happened.

San Jose and Missoula are on board

In August of 2011, his Foundation teamed up with the city of San Jose to host the first ever “Budget Games”. The event featured citizens seated in table groups, discussing some hard choices around the tight city budget. To help that conversation, they were handed equal amounts of monopoly money, and each proposed line item was given a sticker price….oh, and the amount allocated was about half the amount needed, which now forced some serious conversation about tradeoffs. This is very close cousin of the same “Buy A Feature” activity Luke has popularized for the prioritization of product features that product managers debate vigorously.


Here’s the fascinating part: it worked. When the event was over, everyone had agreed to some specific cuts (run the city’s fire trucks with one less fireman) and increases (half the groups were willing to accept a sales tax boost of 0.25 percentage points). They were highlighted in Bloomberg and Financial Times and  when they repeated the event in 2012, and have continued the tradition since.


Lest you think this is only for west coast hippies, let’s talk about cowboy country in Missoula, Montana. In 2014, a City Councilwoman asked Luke to host the same buy-a-feature game at a town hall meeting, as a way to gain ideas for tackling the municipal budget crunch. One idea that popped up: offering urban deer bow-hunting permits, a practice already allowed in other districts. These city-dwelling Montanans were definitely curious, but not quite sold..yet.

Now for Going Big

Since then, the Foundation has set its sights using games to solve wicked problems like the California Drought or Social Security. However, to do that, they need many more people involved. Therefore (drum roll)
I’m pleased to announce that I will be sponsoring the Every Voice Engaged Foundation’s presence at Agile2015.
The Foundation is using these sponsorship funds to show the power of collaboration in a very specific way. Staring earlier this month, they are hosting a series of massive online games to tackle the common problem of underfunded public schools. If you are curious about the options on the table, or would like to see how your opinion would influence the crowd, then you can sign up here to be a part of that effort. The results will be presented as part of Luke’s keynote at the conference, which I will of course be sharing later on.
Given the positive results we’ve seen so far, we know that getting people together at the same table can solve major differences of opinion. Now, all we have to do is scale that dynamic, and we could see very real progress on the things that divide us.