Voter apathy has become an epidemic on our campus. In this year’s Undergraduate Council presidential election, Aditya A. Dhar ’21 and Andrew W. Liang ’21, the joke ticket promising to abolish the UC, received the most first-place votes with just over half the student body voting. A similar joke ticket actually won in 2013, demonstrating the student body’s vote of no confidence in UC leadership. And back in 2017, literally no one voted in the Quincy House midterm elections.
So how did we get to this point where voters are sectioned off, disenfranchised, apathetic, or disengaged? What can we do to further rejuvenate our systems of governance that too often feel out-of-touch or ineffectual?
To restore enthusiasm for civic engagement, several cities around the world, including Cambridge, have implemented participatory budgeting, a system that entrusts a certain amount of a city’s capital budget for citizens to appropriate for use on projects. In Cambridge, citizens first propose ideas to various committees in charge of different focus fields, who then develop finalized proposals for the city to review. Then, the remaining proposals are voted upon by the public, and the six to eight projects with the most votes are funded. PB reintroduces people to the political process, providing them an opportunity to directly fund a part of the public infrastructure of their city.
PB has worked. Since 2014, Cambridge has successfully executed six PB cycles that have funded projects such as the bike-repair station outside of the Porter Square T stop. Most recently, in the 2019 PB cycle, Cambridge residents allocated a total of $1,125,000 of capital funding to eight winning proposals, which included planting trees around heat islands, implementing bottle-filling stations in public areas, providing laundry services inside a public school, installing pedestrian-controlled crosswalk lights, and expanding outdoor WiFi services. Throughout the cycles, citizens have expressed a high amount of interest in participating. Election turnout has increased every single year, and in 2019, over 7,600 Cambridge residents age 12 and older voted.
Harvard should follow Cambridge’s lead and adopt a form of participatory budgeting on campus. This could amplify student perspectives, empower a more representative decision-making process, and boost civic engagement across the university. Harvard certainly has ample financial resources at its disposal to fund such a program, especially one that has the potential to bring together diverse groups of people to engage with our campus. Like Cambridge and hundreds of other municipalities worldwide, the university could allocate some portion of its budget towards participatory budgeting projects, in which the most popularly-supported proposals, as voted upon by all Harvard affiliates, would receive funding.
From start to finish, the process of acquiring ideas and then developing and voting upon them should be interactive and engaging. Harvard could host “Challenge Days” throughout the semester for University affiliates to come together and propose projects that they would like to see implemented on campus utilizing Harvard funding — whether they be infrastructural initiatives, such as the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Science Center, or social programs, such as the organization of more mental health awareness panels. These ideas could be collected on a Post-it wall or electronically via an anonymous Google form and corroborated with additional outreach efforts by Harvard PB volunteers.
Harvard PB would be open to student proposals (as opposed to being confined to predetermined initiatives). Harvard affiliates could then be invited to join committees and volunteer to refine these brainstormed ideas into more detailed draft proposals over several weeks. Afterward, at a Harvard PB fair, individuals and teams would present these proposals, emphasizing their rationale and impact on the public. Finally, on a designated voting day, any Harvard affiliate could fill out a ballot containing their votes for the projects that they believe most deserve PB funding.
Implementing PB at Harvard would overcome student apathy for civic engagement at the school level. It would also be a solution to students’ lack of faith in school government and decision making. More importantly, though, participatory budgeting at Harvard would offer the opportunity for University affiliates to become directly involved and engaged in projects that impact campus life — to help make Harvard a better place for everyone.
Esteban Gutierrez ’23 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Jing-Jing Shen ’23 lives in Straus Hall.