Journalists game state budgets to help citizens understand legislators’ dilemma

I just spent an entire morning sitting in front of my computer playing online games.

By the time I was done, I had furloughed 15,500 Colorado state employees, released 2,561 Oregon prison inmates, imposed a tax on soft drinks in Ohio, and eliminated state funding for California’s county fairs.

The games I played were interactive budget simulators. They allowed me to put myself in the role of governors and legislators in states that are bleeding red ink. As I worked my way through each exercise, I was presented with lists of possible spending cuts and revenue increases. My goal was to balance each state’s budget while minimizing the pain upon its citizens.

News organizations, advocacy groups, and elected officials in more than a dozen states have posted the games on their websites. On some of them, the budget simulators are among the most popular attractions.

New challenges for increasingly popular budget simulators

“The feedback that I’ve gotten is far more positive than almost anything we’ve done,” said Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Smith, who helped design a puzzle that asks users to erase California’s $26 billion dollar shortfall. “People really like this because it gets them involved. I think people understand a lot better when they put themselves in that position of actually having to make the choice that a policy maker is faced with.”

In a phone interview, Smith said visitors to the Bee’s website played the game more than 2,000 times in the first week after it was unveiled. A similar budget exercise on the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch site is averaging about 1,100 uses per day.  And a New York Times puzzle that invited readers to balance the federal budget attracted more than a million page views and 11,000 Twitter messages within days after its November debut.

But as the games grow more numerous and more popular, they pose new kinds of challenges both for people who design them and play them.

Designers face the task of boiling down billions of dollars of complicated budget details into a manageable list of online options. And readers — more accustomed to getting information through conventional news stories — may have a hard time evaluating whether a simulator presents a thorough and accurate array of budget choices.

“We know a lot about what the attributes are of a good investigative report,” said Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota, who studies online news games. “But we don’t know enough yet about the attributes and applications of these kinds of things.”

The first choice:  how many choices?

Indeed, the budget exercises take many forms. Some have splashy graphics and look more like video games, while others have about as much visual appeal as an IRS tax form.

Some explain the consequences of each budget choice in public-policy terms (“Close to one million fewer vaccines might be made available,” said the Boston Globe’s simulator when I cut public health spending), while others confine their analysis to political effects (“Your re-election chances are in serious peril,” warned the Asbury Park Press simulator when I increased New Jersey property taxes).

And while some present a massive array of budget options (Washington’s Snohomish Times asks users to download an Excel spreadsheet with 79 questions), others limit themselves to fewer than a dozen.

“One of the first challenges was just deciding the scope of what we were going to do, and what to include and not to include,” said Sharon Schmickle, who developed the 37 question simulator at Minnesota’s Minnpost.com.

“We decided that we wanted to engage our readers in the real choices that were being considered,” Schmickle said. She told me in a phone interview that MinnPost’s exercise is based around proposals that legislators are actively considering. It excludes other ideas that Schmickle said have little chance of being enacted.

Likewise, Columbus Dispatch editor Mark Fisher said the paper’s statehouse reporters compiled a list of budget items that were “on the table” at the state capitol. From that, Fisher designed a straightforward 34-item questionnaire.

“We were afraid that if we made it too simple, it would be useless, and if we made it too complex, only the most dedicated wonkinoids would use it,” Fisher said.

Fisher said he allowed Ohio budget officials and a bipartisan group of state legislators to review the exercise before it was published. He said their feedback helped assure that the simulator’s financial numbers are accurate and its choices fairly represent those being considered by policy makers.

Questions of accuracy, transparency

Authors of other online budget games, however, admit that their goal isn’t so much to replicate the work of elected officials as it is to influence the policy debate. Simulators on the websites of politicians or advocacy groups often leave few doubts about the authors’ priorities.

For instance, the exercise on the website of the Civitas Institute, a conservative North Carolina think tank, contains 42 options to cut state spending, but just one potential tax increase — on video sweepstakes games. On the other hand, the simulator from the union-backed advocacy group “Our Oregon” includes 17 ways to raise taxes, mainly on corporations and the wealthy.

“One of the reasons that we put this together is to help present a way of thinking about the budget in terms of what we prioritize,” Our Oregon Communications Director Scott Moore said by phone.

“We would like for people to think about the state budget in terms of whether it’s more important to protect our classrooms or protect tax breaks for corporations.”

The variations among the games put the burden on players to understand who developed each one, whether it promotes a particular set of values or political agenda, and what criteria went into formulating its list of budget options.

“It’s incumbent on you as the user to dig into it to see where this stuff came from,” said University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Hansen, who collaborates with Paul on their studies of news games. “Some of them are more much transparent than others about the assumptions that they’re making, where the data is coming from, and what kind of sources they’re using. “

Hansen said the games are useful tools to help people visualize complex financial data and understand the dilemmas that face policy-makers. But she also said they run the risk of over-simplifying the process, because they don’t take into account the political negotiations, consensus building, and horse-trading that’s often necessary to pass a budget bill through a state legislature.

“People may say, ‘Hey, if I can do it, why can’t those clowns down there do it?’” Hansen said. “The games don’t approximate the kind of negotiations that have to happen. It’s really easy to sit down with a spreadsheet and just move some things around.”

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