When the mayor of Somerville needed help with his city’s fiscal crisis in 2004, he looked to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) for assistance. Four years later, in today’s uncertain economic climate, the city of Boston is turning to the institution for aid.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino met with students in Linda Bilmes’ budgeting and financial management class at HKS Dec. 9 to encourage them to enroll in her advanced applied budgeting course this spring. Members of that class will work in Boston to help the city navigate its current financial challenges. The aim of the cooperative effort, the mayor noted, is to have students explore how to increase the quality and efficiency of city services while examining ways to do it at the same or reduced costs.
“Today, this work has become even more important given the current financial crisis at the state and national levels,” Menino said.
The mayor said he liked working with students on city projects in part because of their much-needed perspective.
“What you do is you bring your expertise, your knowledge. You might not think you have it, but the problem we have in government is — you have some people there who have sat there for the last eight, nine, 10 years, and they’ve always done it the same way and it often doesn’t work. We need new eyes and new ideas and [people] to do the research that is necessary.”
The Boston partnership comes at a challenging time as cities around the country struggle with difficult budget cuts and funding shortfalls amid a deepening recession. In Massachusetts, state aid to cities and towns may be cut by as much as 10 percent next year, adding an additional burden to the city���s budget woes.
“It’s going to be a time that this city has never seen before, making these tough cuts as we continue to balance our budget,” said Menino, adding, “We want you to be part of the solution. That’s the part that I like the best.”
The collaboration actually grew out of a casual remark from the mayor. At one of the biannual training conferences sponsored by Harvard’s Institute of Politics for newly elected mayors, Menino, who was part of a panel, suggested cash-strapped mayors looking for budget help enlist the aid of Harvard professors and students. Then-mayor-elect, Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, took the idea to heart. He accompanied Bilmes, who was teaching a workshop at the conference, directly back to her budgeting class and asked the students for assistance balancing his city’s books.
“Sixty students signed up,” recalled Bilmes. “We ended up working in Somerville for four years with a wonderful team and contributing to that city’s whole turnaround.”
The idea ultimately bloomed into a small field course in the spring taught by Bilmes and Carolyn Wood, HKS assistant academic dean, in which small teams of students work directly with a local community on a variety of budgeting issues.
Bilmes is no stranger to budget analysis. The HKS lecturer in public policy was chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management and budget for the U.S. Department of Commerce from 1997 to 2001, where she was responsible for a $9 billion budget. More recently she co-authored a book with Joseph Stiglitz, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict” (W.W. Norton, 2008), which became a New York Times bestseller. Her latest book, “The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service,” with W. Scott Gould, will be published in January.
Bilmes said she recognizes the value of partnering with local cities and towns not only for the benefit of the municipalities, but for the students as well, who learn to develop solutions to real-world problems and receive public service experience.
“This course provides a pipeline for young people to go into public service,” she said. “Already more than 60 students from this course have taken jobs in cities around the country.”
Over the years, the advanced budgeting students have worked in a number of local cities and towns, helping them navigate everything from the economics of charter schools to how to apply for FEMA funding. Bilmes and Wood said they are excited about working in Boston this year.
“Mayor Menino has assembled an outstanding team at city hall, including some of my former students, and I look forward to working with them,” said Bilmes.
The partnership was brokered with help from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, whose goal is to help improve local government by developing connections among scholars, students, area officials, and civic leaders.
In the coming months, Bilmes will work with Lisa Signori, director of administration and finance for the city of Boston, to finalize the specific student projects in financial management and budgeting that will be most beneficial to the city.
Back in class, Menino encouraged the students to not only work with the city short-term, but also to consider a career in government. The choice, he said, could be a rewarding one.
“It’s not about the monetary value, it’s about what you learn. And you help people every day. … It’s about how you make a difference in people’s lives.”
As she wrapped up the course’s final lecture for the semester, Bilmes echoed the mayor’s sentiments, reminding her students that crunching the numbers is really about helping people.
“I urge you to try to use this budget knowledge for the common good,” she said, adding that they should follow the Kennedy School’s founding principle and “try to make the world a better place.”