When Justin de Benedictis-Kessner was getting his PhD in political science, his grandfather pushed him to think outside the box. “Political science, as an academic discipline, is often concerned with scholarly debates—about how or why people form opinions about public policy—but my grandfather challenged me to think about how my research can address the issues confronting policymakers,” said de Benedictis-Kessner, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. De Benedictis-Kessner says that when he came to HKS, he set out to build on existing course offerings and a wealth of faculty experience to design and teach a new field lab—one that supports the everyday decision-making process of real-world policymakers. “This type of course helps apply a lot more brainpower and capacity to policy problems than cities and towns currently have,” he said.
De Benedictis-Kessner joined HKS in 2020 to bring more of this policy-oriented research into his teaching. “It's really tempting when you're a researcher, when you are trying to contribute to important scholarship and theories, to get locked away in the ivory tower and focus only on the debates that occupy other researchers,” he said. “But I find that using research to address pressing societal needs can be incredibly fulfilling.” So, he decided to design an experiential learning class that partners cities with student teams to tackle real-world policy issues. “There is something that can come out of research beyond just publishing a paper that other academics and researchers will read. We might be able to help a policymaker make a better decision.”
In fall 2021, he launched this experiential course, DPI-325, “Urban Politics Field Lab: Political Representation and Accountability.” The course is modeled on HKS’s innovative Greater Boston Applied Field Lab, which was founded and is led by Professor Linda Bilmes with funding from the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation. Twenty-five students enrolled in de Benedictis-Kessner’s inaugural Urban Politics Field Lab course, and officials in five New England cities signed on to participate: City Manager of Portland, Maine, Jon Jennings MC/MPA 2001; Deputy Director of Policy for Providence, Rhode Island, Bret Jacob; And in Massachusetts, Mayor of Brockton, Robert Sullivan; Director of Administrative Services for Billerica, Andrew Levine MPP 2017; and Director of Planning and Community Development for Arlington, Jennifer Raitt.
The course is a win-win for the city officials and students involved. For cities that may not have the staff or resources they need to solve big policy problems, the course provides extra brainpower and capacity. For students, it offers a taste of the skills and experiences they’ll need to succeed in public service after graduation and the chance to make a positive impact for local government while at HKS.
The course also gives students the chance to put into practice what they learn in their HKS classes. “One of the big strengths of the Kennedy School is a really solid grounding in empirical methods and theory, and we have amazing faculty here who teach fantastic classes in their expertise,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. Through field labs, de Benedictis-Kessner said, students can employ these theories and methods to real-world challenges facing state and local governments.
The field labs are made possible with the help of the important connections of HKS’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, with which de Benedictis-Kessner is an affiliated faculty member. Professor Jeffrey Liebman is the Director of both the Taubman Center and the Rappaport Institute, with Rafael Carbonell and Kathryn Carlson serving as the Executive Director of each respectively. The Taubman Center has cultivated strong relationships with state and local government practitioners across the country through its experiential learning programs, research, and state and local convenings, while the Rappaport Institute has done the same in Greater Boston.
Five communities, five policy directives
De Benedictis-Kessner selected the five participating communities because they offered students a broad selection of the policy issues that local governments typically handle.
Arlington, home to about 43,000 and located six miles northwest of Boston, wanted its student team to look at challenges the community was facing around homelessness. Town officials needed help thinking differently about homelessness data, developing short-term interventions that could leverage American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, and strategizing potential longer-term solutions. Student team members Anne Dietterich MPA 2022, Emily Eibl MPP 2022, Kevin Helgren MPA 2022, Zoe Iacovino MPA 2022, and Michael Nelson MPA 2022 drew from their research recommendations that Arlington hire dedicated homelessness experts, expand current services to include options like low-threshold housing, and fund preventative measures such as eviction support services. They also recommended the town develop a strategic communications plan that could help combat misperceptions about the causes of homelessness.
Space reallocation was on the agenda in Billerica, a community of 42,000 located 24 miles north of Boston. The town was undergoing a capital facility needs study to explore creating an intergenerational community center and wanted students to help gather community feedback about the project. The Billerica Director of Administrative Services Andrew Levine mentored four HKS interns the previous summer and was eager for support through the field lab. Henrietta Cho MPA/ID 2022, Carly De La Hoz MPA 2022, Connie Liu MPA 2022, Emily Mello MPP 2022, and Tom Okuda MPA/ID 2022 worked with town officials to help implement an engagement plan that involved surveying residents to figure out what they wanted in their future community center. Liu noted the class was a great extension of her HKS experience. “This class gave me a good, hands-on insight into what local politics looks like and all the complexity of communicating with and collecting input for implementing positive change led by a citizen voice.”
Brockton is a culturally diverse, industrial city of 105,000 located 25 miles south of Boston. Looking to revitalize a waning downtown economy, city officials asked field lab students to assist with a community engagement plan. Natalie Ball MPA 2022, Christian Cuellar MPA/ID 2022, Darryl Lindie MPA 2022, Shaheen Madraswala MPA/ID, and Mel Miller MPP 2022 designed a plan to get feedback from residents on a proposed public space expansion in the city’s downtown. Their findings included recommendations for physical expansion, incentives for vacant and neglected buildings, online assistance for existing businesses, and an accessible art plan. Mayor Robert Sullivan, a lifelong resident of Brockton, felt the resulting community engagement plan will serve his city well. “It’s going to be an invaluable tool as we move forward on development,” he said.
An AI-based intelligent traffic signal system that is under consideration in Portland drew the interest of Adina Goldin MPP 2022, Frank Guzman MPP 2022, Viet Nguyen MPA 2022, Jonathan Timm MPP 2022, and Yuqi Zhu MPP 2022. City Manager Jon Jennings asked the group to analyze how community leaders and the general public would view the implementation of traffic signal priority and voluntary tolling technology. The students conducted interviews with stakeholders, examined a relevant case study for insights, and consulted with data privacy experts at the ACLU. The student team’s recommendations were to weigh the costs and benefits carefully, clarify how revenues from the tolling system would be used, mitigate driver incentives with investments in non-driving modes, and consider a traffic signal priority approach without voluntary tolling.
Field Lab Focus: Providence Fee and Fine Reform
In 2020, Providence received a grant from the national advocacy network Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice to examine how government fines and fees impact residents, an initiative Mayor Jorge Elorza was focused on. The study gave city leaders an idea of the financial structure of the city’s fines and fees and the impact these penalties have on citizens, especially low-income residents of color. The city then wanted to take the next steps by exploring alternative ways of structuring and enforcing its fees and fines. “This is where the Kennedy School students were really helpful in working with us to think through the different implications,” said Bret Jacob, the director of research and development, who led the HKS team through their work.
The student team of Tom Fischer MPP 2022, Leslie Grueber MPP 2022, Lucas Levine MPA 2022, Peter Skopec MPP 2022, and Danica Yu MPP 2022 polled Providence residents to gauge their support for fine and fee reforms, and researched approaches used in other cities and towns to develop recommendations for a reform program. “My first impression of the students was that they were deeply committed and deeply insightful,” Jacob said. “They also have the ability to be self-sufficient: point them in a direction and they’ll figure everything else out.”
Their final report presented a framework to the Elorza administration to make the legal structure, assessment, enforcement, and collection of Providence’s fees and fines less regressive. The findings indicated that modest reforms would have high-impact results, that the general public supported fine and fee reform, and the fiscal downside would be minimal. For Jacob, it was just the right information. “What we had from previous studies was a national profile. What was missing was a very Providence-specific case study or narrative,” Jacob said. “Seeing the polling the students did in Providence underscores that fee and fine reform isn’t a fringe issue. And I think reveals that generally people want a system that meets the ideals of fairness and justice for residents.”
Leslie Grueber specifically asked to work on fine and fee reform as she hopes to continue working on issues related to economic justice and mobility, especially where it intersects with racial and gender equality. “Our project really underscored for me the importance of organizing and movement building within one's own organization or administration, even when the administration is already vision-aligned. Fine and fee reform is a passion project of our client Mayor Elorza in Providence and a lot of the work is aimed at increasing the issue's priority within the state as a whole to inspire other public servants to take action where they can.”
Jacob also thinks the research gives Mayor Elorza the tools his administration required to make substantive changes at the local level. “I think fines and fees are insidious and unjust, and they have been impacting people for a long time in a negative way,” he said. “So I think the public polling helps shed light on the fact that people are open to reform and it's not politically risky. It just needs to be talked about in a way that people understand.”
Combining solid classroom skills with experiential learning
De Benedictis-Kessner couldn’t be prouder of the inaugural lab’s work. “This course gave students experience with the political and logistical challenges facing city and town governments,” he said. “While the projects varied in policy area focus, students used the skills learned in their HKS classes to make solid recommendations to their partner cities and towns.”
And because of its focus on cities and towns, de Benedictis-Kessner feels the field lab and the students who participate in it have the capacity to make a big difference with the challenges governments face. “Many of the issues facing us as a country, homelessness, criminal justice reform, transportation and post-COVID economies, are all being addressed at the local level,” said de Benedictis-Kessner. “City and town governments have the potential to enact policies and have a massive impact on lives. They can do that with our students’ expert help.”
And de Benedictis-Kessner feels good about the future of experiential learning at HKS. “Students come here to be public leaders, to go solve problems,” he said. “They often come here motivated by a passionate interest in politics and policy. If they're going to go out and hit the ground running when they leave HKS, they need some time to practice those skills in the field.”
Banner image: Justin de Benedictis-Kessner with students in Portland, Maine by Martha Stewart