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Videogames inspire Newcastle’s citizen budget consultation

Neil Merrett Published 30 September 2016

Combining elements of video games with public engagement, the city council has launched a new budget simulation service that seeks citizen feedback on how it should balance spending

In the 27 years since the release of the ‘Sim City’ video game that allowed players to run their own metropolis, controlling budgets, public services as well as coping with monster attacks, the changes in technology we have seen as a society would have been hard to anticipate.

Take our ubiquitous connection to a vast global online network of information, and media, as well as government services, not to mention the number of individuals carrying powerful computers in their pockets.  Perhaps most surprising however is how interactive techniques and simulation afforded through videogames, a medium once literally considered as child’s play, may eventually influence what are seen as vital and not so vital public services.

Newcastle City Council has this week launched its Let’s Talk site, which challenges citizens to choose how best to cut £30m from its budget – currently under consultation - while setting out the potential impacts on key services and infrastructure.

Devised in-house and then developed externally as part of a £5,000 project, the council said that aside from curbing the costs of printing materials and resourcing large public consultation events, the project was being trialled as a means of gauging potential reactions to key proposals or service design.

“We wanted people to understand the scale of the challenges facing the council, the difficult decisions councillors need to make when trying to find savings that will result in cuts to services, and genuinely listen to what our residents are saying to help inform our decision making,” said a spokesperson for the authority. “We hope this can be the blueprint for how we consult with our residents and businesses in future.”

With five months until the council is required to set its annual spending, it is hoped the interactive tool will explain the current pressures on services, while trying to provide more qualitative feedback on public perceptions that will be presented to councillors ahead of the decision making process.

Unlike decades of management simulation games appearing on home computers, consoles and tablets, a single user is not yet being given full executive control of the city to mould in their own image.

Rather the site is intended to present a realistic picture of how cuts to specific services would impact the city, its infrastructure and the health and welfare of its citizens.

Whether by expanding council rates that would require a referendum and a number of additional hosting costs, or cutting back on waste or child care services, the implications of every action are presented in both factoids and mock news headlines about what is happening in the city.

From overflowing bins, to curbing social care visits and the number of children’s homes serving the city, the site aims to present the likely ramifications of an individual user’s views about where further reductions should be made.

Aside from the usual unknowable and unpredictable events facing local government, the further expansion of such sites will raise questions over the potential for digital exclusion of the views of more elderly or vulnerable people, as well as less technology orientated citizens.

Yet it does present a possible future for the gamification of certain aspects of our democracy, with a view to stepping up the engagement and interactivity of planning by taking onboard some of the mechanics of interactive entertainment.

Gamification was itself among the topics at the local GovCamp 'unconference' event held in Birmingham in June. 

Respondents during the session noted the use of such techniques by other European governments, yet questioned the potential benefits as a result of costs and development time as a result of wider adoption of such techniques.

With Newcastle’s consultation open for three months, it will be interesting to see how effective or purposeful the new site will be on the council’s budgeting and whether the initiative could yet be granted a Second Life should engagement be sufficient.

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