Civic Engagement Strategies far Financial Sustainability BUDGET GAMES AND SIMULATION: All types of individuals, including expert economists, struggle to interpret and use data to develop appropriate policy recommendations.

Author:Reitano, Vincent
 
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Gaming contributes to better decision making. Translating raw data into useful information is challenging --decision makers rely on information, but access to data does not directly empower informed budget and policy decisions. All types of individuals, including expert economists, struggle to interpret and use data to develop appropriate policy recommendations. (1) If citizens lack trust in public institutions, it's even more difficult for them to place data in context and understand its relationship to a government's options and decision-making process. Budget simulation games help people understand data and translate it into sustainable decisions.

Budgeters, elected officials, and the public can all use games to practice making real budget decisions within a lower-stakes environment than the actual budget process. The games provide practice for the challenges of decision making. Participants experience the hard trade-offs inherent in budgeting and appreciate the necessity of working together to reach financially sustainable decisions. Game design principles add fun to the simulated experience, and some scholars and practitioners advocate this approach as a way to make democracy more engaging. (2) The experience of shared gaming helps build trust and more effective discussion (versus discord) among participants at town hall meetings and other civic events.

DATA, INFORMATION, AND DECISIONS

The dictionary definition of "data" is "factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation." They reflect an observation --for example, a ten-year series of property tax revenues. By itself, an individual data point (i.e., tax revenue for one year) lacks significance, but when multiple data points are considered together (i.e., in a time-series graph or revenue forecast) and interpreted to show a trend, interrelated data points become meaningful information that can be used to inform decisions--assuming that the decision maker has enough expertise to interpret it properly.

Rational choice models dominate government research. These models originate in economic theory and generally assume that decision makers understand information (i.e., humans are generally viewed as rational actors who make logical decisions when they have complete access to information). (3) Thus, traditional economic models assume that stakeholders will effectively use ideas such as government transparency, or the government's obligation to make information available to citizens.

But behavioral psychology and behavioral economics both challenge the assumption that humans are rational consumers of data and information; these models suggest that most people won't use data even if they are accessible. In practical terms, this means that even if a government releases all data (such as budgets or databases of financial transactions), a majority of citizens will fail to access it, and the ones that do access it may not understand it.

The government has a responsibility to help constituents understand how their...

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