Enabling participatory budgeting with a card game

Participatory budgeting has been a “thing” in cities for a while now; assigning a small budget to citizens ideas, and giving them some agency in choosing to which projects the money goes to.

For Helsinki, it’s all one piece of a major local-government overhaul intended to make City Hall more responsive to the public. There’s more power vested in local leaders, including Mayor Jan Vapaavuori, who has pledged to make Helsinki the “most functional city in the world.” The city also has created a new team of seven “borough liaisons” to promote citizen participation in each section of the city.

For many people, however, coming up with ideas and getting them submitted can seem daunting or overwhelming. A few years ago, the city of Helsinki, in collaboration with a local design firm, developed a card game to help people come up with ideas for how to spend their share of the budget.

The game is aimed at making it easy to come up with and submit ideas for funding — less like a civic duty and more like a fun thing you do with friends and neighbours. That, too, comes from the discipline of design, where there’s an emphasis on finding creative ways to solve problems in new ways.

Played in a small group, seven being a good size, the game takes about 90 minutes to play and provides a basic structure to prompt ideas and help the participants in fleshing out some of the details. Cards come in six different types, from “citizen” cards to nudge the team into considering a specific kind of residents, to “city districts” to consider the scale of the project, and to “limiting factors” like these:

Projects must be one-time activities rather than ongoing commitments, and can’t exceed a cost of €35,000; they also can’t contradict core city values such as promoting equality, safety, or sustainability, or fall outside the city’s legal jurisdiction.

Hundreds of card decks were distributed, 1,260 projects were submitted, more than two-thirds fit city policy and, at the time of writing the above article, were going to be analysed and grouped by similarities through a series of co-creation workshops.

To have a better idea of the game, you can have a look at the cards and instructions (links in the article above), both were made available in English under an open Creative Commons license.

Image: Helsinki residents play a card game intended to help spark ideas for projects that the city can fund.