Deep Patel: Reflecting on my 2021 Fellowship with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Policy and Planning
By Deep Patel (Undergraduate, Economics and Political Science, Kilachand Honors College)
This past summer, I was given the opportunity to work as an IOC undergraduate fellow and public policy intern at the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Planning. In this department at Boston City Hall, a dedicated team of diverse and bright minds from across the city work to tackle Boston’s most pressing issues, ranging from COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to green workforce development and education reform. At the core of all our work is an emphasis on equity, ensuring that justice and fairness is achieved for the respective needs of all communities affected by a problem. Given that this was the summer of vaccinations and the year directly after the onset of the global pandemic, I knew that the work during my three months with the team would be extremely important. Thankfully, the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Planning welcomed me with open arms and helped me align my strengths of policy analysis, research, and communication to increase efficiency and innovation in various segments of municipal public policy. My time with the Public Policy team has not only helped me understand the steps that go into formulating, implementing, and assessing municipal policies, but also how to open my critical thinking to include how all demographics are impacted by a policy intervention and what this truly means for its success on a holistic scale. The lessons I learned during my time at City Hall about the role of government operating in alignment with the needs of its constituents will always remain alongside me in my future career and academic endeavors.
For the first two weeks of my fellowship, meetings were limited to remote settings due to the office needing to be restructured to accommodate social distancing measures. I worked alongside Lillian Kelly, another BU summer fellow in the Policy Team, and had a chance to meet my team members Lindsey Butler, Deputy Chief of Policy and Planning, and [BU Wheelock Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement] Mary Churchill, Chief of Public Policy and Planning. In these first weeks of remote work, Lily and I did research for Mayor Kim Janey and created contact sheets for some of Boston’s leading community members, such as presidents of universities, CEOs, teaching hospitals. and community health centers; Main Street representatives; and major real estate developers. Mayor Janey used these updated biographies throughout the summer to have a better understanding of the positions and experiences of all the community leaders that she meets.
After completing this first major task, I was introduced to my overarching high-level focus project for the summer fellowship: suggesting and drafting public policies that would help Boston retain its middle-class population. Boston has been facing the issue of college graduates and young, middle-class adults moving to suburban towns or leaving to work in other large cities. My responsibility was to determine which public policy sectors would be most influential in changing this outcome, and more importantly, drafting policies within these sectors that we could implement in Boston. Upon being assigned this project, my work transitioned to a hybrid in-person system where I was coming in four days a week and working remotely for one day. The timing of this transition in work style along with the delegation of this new project coincided perfectly as it gave me the chance to meet with members of various City Hall teams outside of my department that could provide insight on policy sectors I was considering as my areas of focus. For instance, I scheduled meetings with Zoe Davis and Dr. Alison Brizius of the Environment Department to learn about the unique challenges Boston faced concerning climate change and the need for climate-resilient infrastructure. After two weeks of these meetings, I narrowed my policy sectors for this project down to affordable housing, public transit reform, green workforce development, education reform, and Mayor Janey’s Joy Agenda.
When formulating policies for these specific five sectors, I looked at the relevant track records of other major American cities in these areas because it is always crucial to look at what has worked, as well as what has not worked, before investing resources into a project. For example, I conducted abundant research about Washington D.C.’s Workforce Housing Program under Mayor Muriel Bowser. I found that by creating an unprecedented $20 million workforce housing fund to expand the housing supply, the city has been able to provide affordable housing units to middle class workers such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. In essence, it incentivizes developers to build units that are affordable for the workers of local businesses so they can live closer to their jobs and lessen their carbon footprint. I suggested a similar workforce housing program for Boston given that rent and house prices in Boston are exceeding at an alarmingly high rate and exacerbating related problems such as gentrification and workforce stagnation. Lily and I conducted similar research, analysis, and policy formulation for the remaining four sectors and ultimately presented our findings to the policy team at the conclusion of the summer.
Another crucial policy project that I took on this summer was introducing the right to cooling in the city of Boston. In historically colder states like Massachusetts, the State Sanitary Code and City Municipal Code typically only specify landlords’ responsibility to provide adequate and functioning heating for the winter. However, given the rising effects of climate change as seen in the unprecedented heat waves early this past summer, the right to cooling is equally as important, especially given the already vulnerable health of those remaining indoors due to quarantine status from COVID-19 contact or infection. City Hall was inundated with reports of how the heat waves made living in apartments across the city unbearable because tenants were not allowed to switch over air conditioning until June 15 by law. Understanding that this date should be subject to revision, it was my responsibility to see ways that the public policy team could administratively and legally introduce the right to cooling for Boston’s tenants. I spoke and met with members of City Hall’s Environment Department, the Boston Public Health Commission, the right to cooling and COVID-19 working group, and a myriad of others to understand the nuances of the problem as well as which approaches would face the least pushback.
Given that adding clauses to legally binding documents that need to be voted on would be a multi-year process, I informed the policy office of my idea for the city to establish a municipal fund for landlords to draw from to retrofit their housing units with cooling systems. This would not only support the smaller landlords who would otherwise struggle to make the adjustments that larger ones would easily make, but also get us around the momentary roadblock of no cooling requirements and thus, let us help Bostonians immediately. Coming up with this policy solution made me think back to what the members of the Boston Public Health told me: This is not just a housing issue, but a public health one. This message about the intersectionality and complexity of problems across multiple policy sectors made me realize the levels of analysis that need to go into constructing policies.
I also worked with the city on its newly introduced B-Local app, a phone application that allows Bostonians to shop for discounted food and services from local minority-owned businesses recovering from the economic difficulties of COVID-19. The City of Boston subsidizes some purchases on the app, while also allowing for the accumulation of reward points that can be used for future purchases. Lily and I met with the developers of the app, Colu, and learned their primary challenge with the app since its release in early 2021 was increasing awareness and usage amongst college-age students. To solve this problem, I suggested meeting the student government organizations of various universities in the Greater Boston Area to plan ways for students to learn about the social and personal economic benefits of this app. We met with Boston University’s Student Government and discussed ways for B-Local to be marketed both on campus on virtual posters, as well as at events such as Splash and the concurrent Splash Food Market Festival. Along with the marketing efforts, I also worked with the developers at Colu to discuss some of the initial details of paid college student ambassador programs for the B-Local app. The B-Local policy project was one of the most engaging and eye-opening policy projects I was a part of this summer because it revealed the intersection of technology and public policy in making a better city as well as the joint efforts between municipal and private corporate actors to achieve a common public good.
Finally, I also attended several remote COVID-19 Recovery Task Force meetings that Mayor Janey had with about 30 leaders from various fields in Boston such as healthcare, business, and education to learn where they believed American Rescue Plan Act money should be directed towards. In May of 2021, the city received $212 million from the U.S. Treasury to assist with various causes such as COVID-19 response efforts, assisting small businesses facing economic turmoil, and much more. Although the city did already have a working plan of where to invest this money over the next few months, Mayor Janey scheduled these meetings to see the perspectives of leaders that are on the ground and know the ramifications of these issues the best. Their perspectives helped us make adjustments to our plans and consider subsidiary problems that would have otherwise gone unaccounted for. These meetings taught me that policy formulation is a collaborative, network-based process that should be mutually led between the elected officials and community members. We need the beliefs and experiences of all stakeholders prior to proposing policies, and I soon saw that solely a top-down approach would result in inefficiencies, pushback, and wasted resources. I truly valued the opportunity to be a part of such a diverse group of brilliant minds constructing and suggesting some of the most important public policies in the city’s history.
To say I enjoyed my time working with the Mayor’s Office of Public Policy and Planning would be an understatement. This was undoubtedly one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life and I will always cherish the lessons, memories, and people I established relationships with through this summer fellowship. The IOC has helped me discover that my academic passion for law and policy analysis can translate to my inherent desire to contribute to social justice, equity, and urban planning. I am forever grateful for the enriching experience and will take the lessons I learned with me in my future career endeavors and personal life. Thank you IOC and the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Planning for this incredible work experience, I could not have asked for a better summer!
Learn more about IOC fellowship opportunities here.