Faculty FocusJustin de Benedictis-Kessner is a political scientist and an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He researches American politics, focusing on political behavior, public policy, local politics, elections, and experimental and quantitative methodology. His interest in how local governments and transit authorities formulate policy and deliver services was inspired in part by the winter of 2015, when much of the Greater Boston area was paralyzed by heavy snowstorms and officials struggled to provide basic services like public transportation. Prior to joining Harvard, he was an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. This spring he will be teaching the Greater Boston Applied Field Lab: Advanced Budgeting, Financial Management and Operations (MLD-412) with Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy Linda Bilmes.

Professor Justin de Benedictis-Kessner on big data and "small" data

Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?

Portrait of Justin de Benedictis-Kessner.A lot of my research is on how cities, as well as other local governments like counties and transit districts, create and change policies at the local level—especially now at time when local governments and state governments might be in conflict with the federal government as to what the best sort of solution for a policy problem is. Local governments are stepping in and making a lot of decisions that are hugely important for people's lives. And so a lot of my research is focused on how we can get better policy in cities, and how we can make sure that citizens are satisfied when they're trying to get policy action and get policy change. So it's understanding the dynamics of public opinion, but then also how governments change.


Q: What do you want students of public policy to take away from your teaching?

You can read research articles, you can read a lot of news articles, and you can read really detailed reports with lots of evidence-based policy conclusions. But it can also really inform your research to step in and see things for yourself. One of my examples of this is when I wanted to launch a research project on how people experience public transit in the Boston area. The MBTA was opening this new transit line that was going to go through these areas that had been under-resourced for generations. I had this whole research program planned out. I had developed all these maps. I had demographic data to be able to assess how people were experiencing this new transit line. Then I went out and viewed it in person and there were no people on it.

This highlighted the main problem, which is that you can come at this with all of the right data and all of the right research methods, but if you go look at something in person, you're going to get a really different view of what the problem is and how you might solve it. This is really why I'm quite passionate about teaching in partnership with actual policymakers, because I think you can get a better idea of what the solution should be by talking to those people.


Q: How has COVID-19 changed your work?

I was teaching at Boston University last spring in a big lecture class with 180 students and [COVID-19] just totally changed the dynamic of how students and professors interact. In many ways that was unfortunate because it meant I wasn't having the kind of casual interaction with students before class and after class that I really enjoy. So it made that difficult. But it also made it really easy for some students who might not otherwise feel comfortable talking to me in that context to individually set up a meeting and say “Let's just talk about my career goals.”

It also changed a lot of things in terms of my research. It's really unfortunate, but it's made collaboration with other professors, other researchers, and also policymakers a more difficult because a lot of that relies on informal relationships that you build over time. For example, talking about what you might contribute as an academic researcher to a policy problem is something that might happen when you're walking down in the hall going to another meeting. That just doesn't happen so easily when you're formally or even informally chatting via Zoom.


Q: How do you plan on connecting with your students and the HKS community while we remain remote?

I think part of that will be about us as professors making sure to demonstrate our availability. It’s trying to really encourage quick meetings for which there's not a super serious agenda. That’s totally fine with me and it’s just making that available to not just my students but anyone who wants to come get involved in the types of research that I do. I've also been trying to connect with a lot of the other professors, especially in the Taubman Center for State and Local Government where I'm located, because even if we're not physically down the hall from each other we can still try to get together and have a quick Zoom happy hour. So it’s trying to create these informal interactions, which can sometimes feel forced, but I still think that there's a lot of opportunity to make these things feel more regular and to try to get used to this new situation.


Q:  What is one interesting fact about you that most people don’t know?

Last summer, pre-COVID-19, I spent three weeks bicycling across Europe from Athens to Amsterdam with a few friends. It’s a long-term addiction: I also rode across the United States in 2014 from Seattle to Boston. When I’m not doing research or teaching about politics, I like to spend time on my bike.

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