Participatory Budgeting: A New Possibility for Shared Governance in Action

Editor’s Note: In this post, part of our series on Shared Governance in Action, guest contributor Spoma Jovanovic, Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, digs into an exciting possibility for expanding shared governance in budgeting decisions in higher education: Participatory Budgeting.

I have learned a lot about creativity and persistence from wise, community organizers that I have applied to my faculty work advocating for shared governance and my scholar-activism dedicated to advancing democratic practices in public life.  A recent innovation in public deliberation that these organizers discovered has potential for expanding the opportunities for shared governance in higher education: Participatory Budgeting (PB). The broad overview of PB is that it invites people to consider and decide how a portion of a public budget should be spent to satisfy the needs and wants of the people. In other words, rather than leaving the entirety of the budget in the hands of financial experts, who are often removed from the day-to-day operations of the organization for which they have fiscal responsibility, the public or those who are directly served by the budget have a say in how at least some of the money is spent. Thinking about PB in higher education means that faculty, not just administrators and deans, can question, research, and propose ideas for how increasingly limited financial resources are best expended across all areas of the college or university. Naturally, that also means faculty together with administrators and deans will consider where budget cuts, if any, need to be taken.

PB is not a panacea for all that ails faculty matters or other higher education concerns such as rising student debt, declining enrollments, or worsening mental health issues on campus. However, PB does offer a unique opportunity to move campus stakeholders out of their silos and into an arena where the collective wisdom of all can be considered in critical decisions.

Before discussing specifically how PB can be adapted for higher education, it is important to consider how it has been used to date. Since 1989, PB has been used by cities around the world to build clean water infrastructure where it has been absent or to build bus shelters and playgrounds in locations where they were wanted. PB generally operates with its gaze on equality and equity by intentionally reaching out to people who have been left out of past decision making to brainstorm ideas, develop detailed proposals, and then vote among projects for those they want to implement. Another distinguishing feature of PB is that there must be a commitment by those who retain power of the budget to abide by the final vote of the people to fund their projects. PB has been implemented, though in more limited ways, in schools, school districts, and even colleges, primarily as a mechanism to teach and enhance the civic capacities of students.

The time is right to consider PB as a tool to enhance shared governance on college and university campuses, to help repair the erosion of faculty confidence in campus leadership, and to tap into, rather than sidestep the brain power of faculty and staff who can work collectively for higher education’s future, one campus at a time.

In higher education decision making, PB will have to operate somewhat differently than what happens in cities, though the goal can remain the same. In cities, PB is used as a process using discretionary or sometimes operational dollars to fund new projects that people believe will make their cities better places for all to live, making the public budget more equitable. For higher education, the budget likewise should be used to consider how to make the institution better for all, with concern for equity a vital factor. And, funding for new programs will be required while at the same time determining what old programs may need to be put to rest, a process that will no doubt require deep consideration for its impacts on all the campus stakeholders in the present and for the future.

For a campus to use PB, faculty and staff will need to allot a portion of their time to learn about financial matters and forms of advocacy, an admittedly new demand. Administrators will no longer be able to simply present a slide show with the campus’ financial overview that too often concludes that across-the-board cuts are the only option going forward. A shared commitment by groups of faculty, staff, and administrators organized in small cohorts and larger audiences to look at how the campus is structured, and what it prioritizes through the budget can, as community organizers attest, reveal important gaps between what is being funded and what should be valued and is needed. Thus, athletics, student support services, the growing layers of bureaucratic personnel (aka administrative bloat), and technology all need to be evaluated side-by-side with academic instruction rather than separated out from one another.

When faculty use PB to advocate for academic enhancements, no doubt their thinking will be informed by the need to ensure that the next generation of citizens is knowledgeable and courageous enough to address competing claims for how we ought to live together in peace, locally, and globally. That is the charge for higher education. And faculty will necessarily have to hold their ground in the contest for campus dollars, while also listening carefully to what other needs besides formal instruction students ought to receive while in college. In doing so, the faculty lends intellectual rigor, reasoning, and critique to budget sense-making as a piece of the shared governance that at least in part defines the democratic mission of higher education.  The result will be a restructuring of faculty and staff interactions with administrators through deliberative energies to consider the opportunities, challenges, and priorities that a budget defines. The promise of PB in higher education during times of budget cuts or budget windfalls is that faculty and staff will enter into critical and contested conversations by drawing upon their feet-on-the-ground experiences to improve both the way in which difficult decisions are made, and also to influence what actual budget decisions are made.

As a start, faculty, staff, and administrators can host open events where all campus stakeholders are invited, not just a selected few, to brainstorm ideas and ways to address the current and future budget requirements. To make participation meaningful, administrators need to offer for discussion more than a scan of the budget process. They need to develop a series of budget workshops to make transparent, rather than obfuscate, how, what, where and why money flows on the campus. Advocacy training needs to be provided as well. In the PB process, faculty and staff need to prepare for promoting their ideas by developing sound arguments, creating useful written materials to reach the audience of their peers, building solidarity, and promoting fearless communication to resist the power and influence of the ROI narrative and replace it with one that embraces democratic values and practices. Doing these types of activities provides the greatest hope that PB ideas will benefit not just a discrete program or department, but instead impact the larger campus community.  

PB encourages everyone—administrators, faculty, staff, and students—to voice their ideas, hear what others have to say, and be open to seeing how any one idea may need to take a backseat to more critical projects and programs that require support. At the same time, in voicing their views, campus stakeholders may build on what others offer, to create a new solution that was not yet considered. With PB, shared governance becomes tangible in the expression of creativity, critical thinking, new knowledge, and importantly, the understanding of how different people and departments within the university prioritize the school’s vision. PB encourages a kind of collective action that emanates from those who use their rhetorical skills and ethics of care to advance the best possible solutions to allocating funds, no matter how robust or meager the dollars.

In the process, PB can cultivate new, albeit informal campus leaders, bolster shared governance in non-traditional ways, and build stronger relationships between administrators, faculty, and staff. During times of campus belt tightening, it behooves us all to ensure that rather than having the dire conditions we feel squeeze the spirit out of higher education, faculty can lean on hopeful processes like PB to reclaim education as the expression of and pathway to the democratic life students deserve.