New Participatory Budgeting

By Olivia Rowland ’21

Copy Editor & Herald Staff

Have you ever wondered where exactly your tuition money goes, or wished that you had more control over how the school spends your money?

One group of students is addressing these concerns by working to increase students’ control over the Colleges’ budget. Eva Catanzariti ’20, president of William Smith Congress; Nuzhat Wahid ’22, WSC vice president; and Robert Russell ‘22, Hobart Student Government vice president are currently leading an effort to implement participatory budgeting at HWS.

Participatory budgeting is “a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend the public budget,” explains Wahid. It starts with proposals for projects to better the community from anyone who has an idea. Experts help participants refine their ideas, and then participants present their ideas for a vote. The winning projects get guaranteed funding and are subsequently implemented.

“Think of The Pitch,” says Catanzariti, “but the projects proposed are for campus betterment and voted on by all students, proposed by students, facilitated and discussed by students,” with expert input in the form of assistance from faculty and staff.

Although this is a student government-led project, it goes beyond student governments and into the administration. Catanzariti says it’s something the student governments are “asking the school to do” at the administrative level. The group has been in regular contact with President McGuire and other faculty members, who are on board with the project. The students’ goal is to secure funding for the initiative before working out the logistics.

If approved, participatory budgeting would change the way the Colleges decide how to spend the budget, ultimately giving students more say in how their money is spent. HWS would be the second college in the country to adopt this budgeting method, following Brooklyn College in New York City.

Examples of potential projects include providing boats and kayaks at the waterfront for everyone to use and making small improvements to the Intercultural Affairs Center, like replacing the water filter and providing more school supplies for students. Projects may also be similar to Wahid’s current free menstrual products initiative, which could have been proposed and voted on under a participatory budgeting system.

However, participatory budgeting isn’t just about the projects themselves. “It’s a process, not a project,” says Catanzariti. “It’s a community-building and democratizing exercise.”

Aside from giving students more control over the Colleges’ spending, two big goals of the project are education and community development. In order for the process to work, students will have to learn what participatory budgeting is and how it works. Wahid, Catanzariti, and Russell hope that this, along with the process itself, will help improve the sense of community on campus.

According to Russell, participatory budgeting will “get more people together who aren’t usually together, open new channels of dialogue to talk together.”

Catanzariti concurs. The process requires that “students work together and listen about each other’s biggest concerns. We currently don’t come together much on campus; there’s a lot of fragmentation. We have to talk between groups.”

Participatory budgeting will necessarily involve expanding student involvement in the government process. “We want as many people as possible coming from as many different areas of campus as possible,” says Russell. Participatory budgeting would allow more students to participate in student government, especially those who are currently unable to attend student government meetings and those who may not feel safe discussing their concerns in that space.

The goal is that the “outcomes reflect the student body, not just student government bodies,” Catanzariti explains. In the end, it all comes down to expanding democracy. Participatory budgeting is fundamentally “democracy at a local level,” as Wahid puts it.

Not everyone agrees, however. Some students are opposed to participatory budgeting and reject these arguments. Among them is Ryan Skinner ’19, who has three main objections to the idea.

Skinner believes that participatory budgeting “will be rife with lobbyism. It is likely that well-organized clubs and organizations, such as fraternities, could pack the room with their supporters and capture the rewards regardless of whether their idea was the best one.” According to Skinner, students not currently involved with student government are unlikely to be as informed and impartial as student government representatives, which will negatively affect the outcomes of the process.

Another concern is that participatory budgeting would undermine “the purpose of student government while making us into more of a bank.” Because Skinner sees student government as the best place for students to discuss their concerns, he worries that participatory budgeting would rid campus of this necessary space.

Finally, Skinner argues that participatory budgeting would take away from money currently given to the Budget Allocation Committee, which disburses funds for student organizations. There is also the possibility that participatory budgeting could shift responsibility for some projects from the administration to the students. “I can easily imagine the administration trying to pass off its responsibility to pay for things like improved blue lights by asking PB to pay for it instead,” says Skinner.

Skinner rejects the idea that participatory budgeting will increase student participation on campus, citing research showing that it often fails to be inclusive. He also claims to have been attacked after bringing up his concerns about lobbyism in direct democracy, and he does not believe that the proposed solution, a committee to “block frivolous proposals,” will preserve democracy. He asks, “What is a frivolous proposal and how can PB be truly democratic if this mechanism exists to subvert the people’s will?”

In a way, this debate comes down to larger concerns about representative and direct democracy. Catanzariti, Russell, and Wahid stand by their belief that the project will increase democracy, strengthen community, and expand students’ participation in their government.

“Democracy is democracy,” says Catanzariti. “It’s always better for students to be able to voice what they want and how they want it. … We’re not concerned for the governments—it’s for the students.”

Wahid argues that “the majority concern ignores the fact that people have different identities and can think for themselves.”

“People love drama,” Catanzariti says remarking on the gossip around a huge divide between WSC as HSG, and how people like to feed off and create drama around that. “We don’t think any of this invalidates the importance of participatory budgeting.”

Any students with questions or input are always welcome to reach out to HSG or WSC.

Corrected: April 30, 2019. The final quote now includes more context from Catanzariti.

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