ON THE AGENDA | AUGUST 24TH, 2016 | Janice Adamo
My first experience with participatory budgeting at Queens College was nothing short of revolutionary.
My first experience with participatory budgeting, or PB, at Queens College was nothing short of revolutionary. Most college students feel left out from the decisions their schools make about how to spend money. PB gives me and my fellow Queens College students a tool to better understand our school’s budget and have a voice in how money is spent.
Queens College is a part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, whose budget is <. We are currently working to institutionalize Participatory Budgeting within the CUNY system. During the 2015-16 budget year, PB at Queens College was limited to a portion of the Student Government budget - $5,000 out of a total Student Government budget of over $115,000. This budget is funded entirely by students themselves. Every year, each student pays a student activity fee of $12 that goes into the budget. The Student Government plans and orchestrates various events on campus, so it’s particularly meaningful for students to have a voice in how this money is spent.
While students had the opportunity to weigh in on Student Government budget decisions before PB arrived, student participation was not fully inclusive. All enrolled students are allowed to be a part of Student Government, but it is a commitment that some cannot make. Not every single one of the almost 21,000 students has the time. Queens College is a commuter school and many of our students keep full- or part-time jobs, raise families or live too far away to stay extra hours. Many had therefore been left out of the process of determining what the $115,000+ Student Government budget will be spent on.
On the other hand, participating in PB requires far less of a time commitment. We found that students gravitated towards PB’s quick voting/survey process, and were excited that people were taking a stand for what we wanted, what we deserve as tuition-paying students.
At any time on campus, you can hear remarks from students about the library needing more Wi-Fi hotspots, or the quad needing more visually-impaired-friendly maps. Thanks to the Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives (SODA), which brought participatory budgeting to Queens College, students could submit their suggestions for resolving these and other issues and turn them into project proposals through deliberation with others. PB is an answer for frustrated students.
Even with our relatively small $5,000 budget, we were still able to form feasible proposals for the ballot. Fast-forward a couple months and the results of the vote yielded 2 winning projects: fixing Wi-Fi deadspots in Rosenthal library and installing an additional black-and-white printer in the library. Extra funds that were not used for winning project implementation were allocated for a smaller, to-be-determined project.
PB has additional benefits as well:
Though this was only the first cycle, participatory budgeting as a tool for civic engagement at Queens College noticeably brought the community together. PB has the potential to and radically change the way CUNY allocates funds. Come here and discover the world of amazing online slot games!
Through our evaluation survey (which we included on the ballot for quick completion), we found that most voters were people who consider themselves “Very Uninvolved” or “Uninvolved” in other campus organizations, as opposed to “Very Involved," “Involved” or “Neutral". Deepening and expanding community involvement is a pillar in participatory budgeting, and this turnout validated what we hoped PB would achieve.
Representation was important to us starting with the leadership of the PB process itself. A triumvirate team oversaw the process. Even within this team, there was not one person who had more or less power than the rest and we found that was a major key in our success. Among both the steering committee and the budget delegate teams, every decision required a unanimous vote or at least a majority rule. These voting conditions helped the process run smoothly, as everyone felt they had a voice and an impact.
Interning at Public Agenda gave me real-world insight to the infinite nuances within each participatory budgeting process. I got to see the effects of public engagement and participatory budgeting on a larger scale and compare its outcomes in different cities. If you’re interested in learning more about PB, check out Public Agenda’s year in review report, or
Janice is a student of Queens College and a summer 2016 intern with Public Agenda.