Associate Professor of Public Policy
Searching for Answers: Networks of Practice Among Public Administrators
Lazer, David, Maria Binz-Scharf, and Ines Mergel. "Searching for Answers: Networks of Practice Among Public Administrators." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP08-046, October 2008.
The obstacles to innovation in government have been the subject of much academic scrutiny. Far less studied, however, has been the sharing of innovation among public administrators. How does a lesson learned, for example, in one agency provide insights that other agencies might borrow? Such sharing of experiences across agency boundaries, while at times potentially offering enormous value to the system as a whole, faces substantial challenges. In the US, one fundamental challenge is the natural dispersion of government across the country, within state and local government. We examine the alternative mechanisms that evolve within the public sector to compensate for this dispersion of expertise. In particular, we argue that the knowledge sharing practices of DNA forensic scientists working in government crime labs constitute such an alternative mechanism. Findings from an in-depth case study of this community suggest that concerns around trust, reliability, and cost, interacting with context specific features, result in the emergence of a network of practice that is fairly parochial, with a few dominant hubs, and a reliance on different channels depending on the needs for security in communication. We conclude by discussing the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.