SimBudget

Eric Morris, a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies, has already written a few posts here, and will now join our corps of recurring guests bloggers. Please welcome him.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto: nyki_m

I can’t help but wonder how many urban planners were inspired to enter the profession by computer games like SimCity or Railroad Tycoon. I can’t help but admit to spending a few hours (O.K., more than a few) blasting virtual tunnels through the Rockies and rebuilding Tokyo after those annoying SimCity Godzilla attacks.

But I for one am unapologetic; these programs convey information about arcane topics like utility maintenance costs and right-of-way clearance in a fun and accessible manner. In particular, they give a valuable sense of the trade-offs that cannot be avoided in crafting public policy.

Now the Kansas Department of Transportation has come up with a neat way to both educate the public about its services and get valuable feedback about customer preferences, using a game-like format. The T-Link Calculator allows you to set transportation policy in Kansas and see the fiscal results of your choices.

On the revenue side, you can change the projected size of the tax base and raise or lower various levies, transfer payments, and fees. On the spending side, you can let your highway pavement crumble so you can fund new bike/pedestrian improvements, or you can add lanes to your urban freeways while slighting mass transit. Or you can have it all by issuing lots of bonds — although the site shows you the budgetary havoc this can wreak down the road.

I think this format has a lot of promise for governments, and not just for departments of transportation. By presenting the information this way, the Kansas Department of Transportation reaches out to voters (particularly younger ones) who are accustomed to interactivity and immediate feedback from their information sources. I have a feeling that many people who would never think of sitting down and reading the state budget will warm to playing “transportation god” on this site.

Moreover, the site makes it clear that we can’t ask for everything from our government; tough budgetary choices have to be made. Perhaps users will come away with a bit more sympathy for the officials who strive to make us all happy while keeping the public purse from running dry.

Even better, the information exchange goes both ways. K.D.O.T. collects data about the preferences users express on the site to help set funding priorities.

After using the calculator I can’t help but conclude K.D.O.T. hasn’t allocated enough money to its Godzilla defenses. But other than that, it is onto a very interesting idea. Maybe other government entities will follow suit.

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  1. bb says:

    I used to work for Banner blue software company and they had a program called Uncle Sam’s Budget Balancer that worked like this (though its a bit dated now, and the budget #’s are no doubt out of date as well). There was a corresponding program for the California budget called Eureka. You can find them both here now: http://www.klhess.com/unclesam/ (they are DOS/Windows applications)

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  2. Mercutio.Mont says:

    Where’s the “privatize” button?

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  3. Ben says:

    I actually had a professor use SimCity as a teaching tool. Though I knew the cheat codes, so it made balancing my budget a little easier.

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  4. Hunter says:

    That is the coolest thing I’ve seen government do in a long, long time.

    (full disclosure: grew up in Kansas; of the strong opinion that the state does not get enough credit as a bellwether of economic, social and political change)

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  5. Quill says:

    If you’re looking for similar teaching tools, I’d recommend Tropico. You have to balance a state-run economy, pacify various factions — all on a slice of Caribbean paradise.

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  6. Arlen says:

    SimCity inspired me to enter my profession; I’m now an urban economist.

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  7. Jeffrey says:

    This is like American Public Media’s Budget Hero — a video game that lets you run the federal budget. Frankly, I think Budget Hero should be required for all high school and college Government classes.

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  8. Hoosier Paul says:

    Very cool. I work in economic development for a municipal government, and I can confirm that these types of games had a big impact on my interest in governance.

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