RESEARCH | In 2004 at an Institute of Politics seminar, then newly elected Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone expressed frustration over how his city’s lack of resources prevented him from implementing badly needed reforms. According to Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, her fellow panelist Tom Menino, the mayor of Boston, suggested, “Get Linda to help for free with her students.” The rest, says Bilmes, is history.
Q What happened next?
It was pure serendipity. Mayor Curtatone, who is a very charismatic kind of guy, came to my Budgeting and Financial Management class and asked for volunteers. To my surprise, 67 out of the 95 students signed up. They worked that semester in all 17 departments — trying to understand budgets, setting performance measures, seeing how things fit together. If you were looking at responding to a fire, for example, how did the actual cost structure work out between the police, the fire department, and the public utilities?
Q What did you take away from that first experience?
What I discovered was that for teaching something like budgeting and public finance, there’s just no substitute for doing it in the real world. Instead of looking at a textbook or a Harvard Business School case, students were actually working with the real police records, the real budget, the real special education records of real children.
Q And eight years later, how has the class evolved?
Thanks to the generosity and vision of Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport, hundreds of students have participated in this dynamic learning lab experience. We’ve worked in half-a-dozen cities, including Boston, Hull, and Newton, on more than 30 projects. Over the years we’ve reconfigured it for students who’ve already taken basic budgeting, finance, and accounting. We currently have an active waiting list of 35 cities that want to join the program. We also have people asking from all over the United States and the world, but we haven’t been able to scale the program to that level yet. There are so many projects I’d love to do. The demand far outstrips the supply.
Q What does the class offer students?
Every day when students pick up the Boston Globe, they see evidence of some of the things they or their predecessors did in the city — the expansion of the Boston bicycle Hubway program, a lot of the transformation of Somerville, the installation of LED lighting in Boston. It’s wonderful to see. We’ve put together this amazing cocktail of great students who really want to work, city officials who want to work with them, and really difficult technical problems that require a lot of analytics — and it’s like magic. It turns into a very rewarding experience for everyone.