Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito (left) discusses the importance of state-local collaboration with Danielle Cerny at a Sept. 28 event at Harvard University. Cerny, a visiting fellow at the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is the author of a report about the partnership between the administration and municipalities. (Photo courtesy Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

A new report from the Rappaport Institute at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government highlights the strong partnership between the Baker-Polito administration and the state’s cities and towns, how it came to be, and the positive results it has achieved.

“We set out a few months ago to try to understand what was happening on the ground, what was so different about the way that this administration was working with cities and towns that we kept hearing about,” said Danielle Cerny, a visiting fellow at the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the author of the 50-page policy brief, during an unveiling event at Harvard on Sept. 28. “What were the pieces? Did it really work? Could we bottle it, particularly as we start to prepare for transitions here and elsewhere. How could we try to capture this?”

Cerny discovered that the positive working relationship started with a strong commitment from the top, on Day 1, and an understanding that the Commonwealth is only as strong as its 351 cities and towns.

“We found something really different,” Cerny said, “a really innovative approach to creating collaborative relationships with cities and towns, that led to tangible improvements on the ground.”

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito came into office with local government experience, having served on select boards in their hometowns of Swampscott and Shrewsbury, respectively. During an interview with Cerny, Polito called the experience “informative, inspiring and very meaningful.” She said both she and the governor felt that local government “is the least appreciated” level of government, “but probably should be the most valued.”

“It is the most essential part of government,” she said, “because it is directly delivering the services that touch people’s lives.”

As one of his first acts in office, in 2015, Baker named Polito as “champion” for municipal issues across state government. The administration elevated the Division of Local Services, with a mission to help municipalities succeed, and made local government a priority at the secretariat level. The governor’s office worked quickly to update and streamline state processes that bogged down local efforts and to eliminate obsolete state laws — particularly through two omnibus bills known as the Municipal Modernization Act. The administration also committed to increasing local aid by a predictable amount each year in the state budget.

Given the diversity of the state’s communities, the administration recognized that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work. And the administration developed new ways to engage local leaders and solicit their input on how the state could better support cities and towns.

The administration’s first month saw the creation of the Community Compact Cabinet, a popular state-local effort, chaired by Polito, that has resulted in the implementation of at least one new best practice in every municipality in the state, tied to housing, economic development and financial management, among other constituent services. Polito has famously traveled to each community in the state, often showing up for the signing of the compacts, and built relationships with local officials in all 351 cities and towns. The program has awarded 740 grants totaling $14.7 million in support of more than 1,175 chosen best practices statewide.

The administration went on to create a range of sometimes modest but effective grant programs, particularly focused on economic development and infrastructure, eventually consolidating them under the Community Compact and the innovative Community One Stop for Growth.

Polito, who hails from central Massachusetts, said the administration was determined not to play favorites, and made efforts to ensure that their attention — and state grants and technical assistance — were spread evenly from the Berkshires to Cape Cod and the Islands.

Polito recalled meeting some community leaders who were skeptical at first.

“I remember going to Western Massachusetts as a candidate and people would say, ‘Thanks for campaigning here. We’ll never see you again,’” Polito said in the report. “We knew we needed a plan that combated that and that recognized that making every part (of the state) better made the whole better.”

Cerny identified several core principles that guided the administration’s work with municipalities:
• Relentlessly demonstrating top-down support
• Hearing what localities need and following through on feedback
• Strengthening localities’ abilities to perform and deliver services
• Making it easier for localities to identify, and connect with, the right funding opportunities
• If you’re going to ask, listen and act
• Small dollars can have a big impact
• Leverage state capacity to unlock local potential

“By the end of two terms,” the report states, “the Baker-Polito administration’s new approach both improved the abilities of localities to deliver for their residents and built strong relationships and trust that enabled rapid state-local collaboration in response to crises such as COVID-19.”

The report quotes former Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. reflecting on his work with Polito: “I can literally never think of a time she didn’t follow up.”

• View the report, “Empowering Cities and Towns: The Baker-Polito Approach to Local Collaboration and Capacity-Building

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