American Review of Public Administration – Best article 2012 award

ARPA

Maria Christina Binz-Scharf, David Lazer and I were just awarded the 2012 Best Article Award by the American Review of Public Administration for our article “Searching for Answers: Networks of Practice Among Public Administrators“.

An earlier version of the paper is available on SSRN.

Abstract:

How do public administrators find information about the problems they confront at work? In particular, how and when do they reach across organizational boundaries to find answers? There are substantial potential obstacles to such searches for answers, especially in a system of decentralized governance such as the U.S. government. In this article, we examine the alternative mechanisms within the public sector that compensate for this dispersion of expertise, focusing on knowledge sharing across public DNA forensics laboratories. In particular, we propose that the emergence of informal interpersonal networks plays an important role in providing access to necessary expertise within a highly decentralized system. Our findings point both to the need for further research on knowledge sharing networks within the public sector as well as practical implications around the value of investments into facilitating the creation and maintenance of networks of practice.

Full reference:

Binz-Scharf, M. C., Lazer, D., Mergel, I. (2012): Searching for answers: Networks of practice among public administrators, in: ARPA – The American Review of Public Administration, 42(2), pp. 202-225.

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New article in IPMJ: The Multiple Institutional Logics of Innovation

We just published the following article on the diffusion and adoption of web practices among Members of Congress’ offices in the International Public Management Journal.

Abstract:

How do decentralized systems deal with innovation? In particular, how do they aggregate the myriad experiences of their component parts, facilitate diffusion of information, and encourage investments in innovation? This is a classic problem in the study of human institutions. It is also one of the biggest challenges that exists in the governance of decentralized systems: How do institutions shape individual behavior around solving problems and sharing information in a fashion that is reasonably compatible with collective well-being? We use a particular decentralized institution (the U.S. House of Representatives), wrestling with a novel problem (how to utilize the Internet), to explore the implications of three archetypical principles for organizing collective problem solving: market, network, and hierarchy.

Reference:

Lazer, David; Mergel, Ines; Ziniel, Curtis; Esterling, Kevin; Neblo, Michael (2011): The Multiple Institutional Logics of Innovation, in: International Public Management Journal, 14:3, pp. 311-340, doi: 10.1080/10967494.2011.618308.

Leave a comment in case you would like to read the electronic copy of the article!

New working paper: Tying the network together

David Lazer (Northeastern & Harvard University) and I have just posted a new working paper titled “Tying the network together – Evaluating the Impact of an Intervention into the Advice Network of Public Managers“. It’s up on the Social Science Research Network for comments. We are in the process of making some substantial changes to it, but would love to hear your feedback!

Here is the abstract:

Networks are often see as emergent and self managed; and yet much of the research on networks examines how networks affect the effectiveness of systems and individuals. Is it possible to intervene in the configuration of a network to improve how it functions? Here we evaluate the impact of an intervention to change the array of relationships connecting a set of distributed public managers—State Health Officials (SHOs). SHOs were brought together for a one week executive educational program near the beginning of their tenures. This paper evaluates the question as to whether this program had long run effects on the ties among SHOs. Using a combination of survey and interview data, we find that there is a substantial effect on the probability of ties between individuals that attend the program together, relative to individuals who attend the program in different cohorts. Given recent findings that highlight the importance of interpersonal networks in the effectiveness of individual managers, this suggests a potential role for interventions to improve the efficiency of dispersed, public sector manager to manager networks.

Lazer, David and Mergel, Ines A., Tying the Network Together: Evaluating the Impact of an Intervention into the Advice Network of Public Managers (July 8, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1881674

Social media network panel at #pmrc2011

On June 2-4, 2011, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University has hosted the biannual Public Management Research Conference. You can find full papers on the conference program page.

I was part of Panel 20 “Social Media Networks” together with Professors Jane Fountain (UMass Amherst) and David Landsbergen (Ohio State). Jane presented here theoretical framework on how technology can introduce change into government organizations: “Layering in Public Management: Stability and Change in Digitally Mediated Institutions“. It provided a great framework for the following papers (kudos to the program committee).

I presented my study with the title “A Mandate for Change”: Diffusion of Social Media Technologies Among Federal Departments and Agencies“. In this paper, I present first findings of my interviews with Social Media Directors from the Executive branch of the U.S. federal government. The aim in this paper is to understand how and why social media directors make the decision to adopt social media practices. The Open Government and Transparency memo provided the motivation for this question: The memo states explicitly that government has to become more participatory, transparent and collaborative – and to harness new technologies to accomplish this goal. The memo itself is a very broad mandate and in the first two years public managers had very little formal guidance to understand what best practices are, how to organize day-to-day practices, how to fit the use of social media into the existing mission and standard operating procedures when communicating information. Given this lack of formal guidance, I found that public managers are looking at their informal network and use what I call their passive attention network. They are looking at other agencies and departments and emulate practices from other agencies. Based on this finding, I was also able to tease out three different adoption pathways for the use of social media applications: 1) Representation and broadcasting (push); 2) Engagement (pull); and 3) Networking and mingling.

Open questions, that I will address in other papers will include: a) Measuring impact of social media activities; b) Organizational change for the use of social media practices; c) Necessary organizational capabilities for the use of social media applications. I have also collected data from social media directors in the non-profit sector and the corporate sector, so that I will be able to write a comparative study on the use of social media applications.

The last panelist, Professor David Landsbergen (Ohio State), presented a research and teaching project in which he analyzed social media policies of nine cities. What I observed – and received proof for with David’s presentation – was that while the federal government has now access to guidance, such as HowTo.gov or the Federal Web Managers Forum, local government officials are struggling immensely with the use of social media applications. There is no guidance, it is unclear to what extent the use of social media makes sense, what the right tools are for what kind of activities, etc.

We will keep the conversation going and are submitting another panel proposal to the upcoming ASPA 2012 conference in Las Vegas.

OpenGovRD: Towards an “Open Public Administration Commons”

Day 2 of the OpenGovRD workshop started with a session to collect open-ended research questions that the academics in the room can tackle. We reviewed our initial wish-list of what research on Open Government should look like. Some of the keywords people in the room used to describe OG research included: interdisciplinary, rigorous, robust, actionable, fundable and most of all FUN (that was my favorite keyword). I believe fun will be a result of a research agenda that will include researchers from different disciplines, but also includes a constant feedback cycle between academics and practitioners.

I would like to push even further – not just showcasing research findings, but constantly including practitioners into the research process and not only as subjects (i.e., interview partners), but as equal partners who guide the research, evaluate its feasibility and to keep the research grounded and unbiased. The findings need to be actionable right away and not after a 2-3 year publishing cycle in academic journals that are “hiding” the results for exclusive access in University libraries.

Obviously, an OG research agenda needs to be fundable. The group highlighted that there is no digital government program at NSF anymore, so that new funding sources need to be discovered and we probably need to work closely with directorates or programs at NSF to identify the right venues for proposal submissions.

The practitioners and academics in the room mentioned one gap over and over again: We don’t know what we know! There are several platforms out there that are collecting, harvesting and displaying some of the research and reports that are available on specific subtopics, but there is not one place that helps to compile everything we already know. I suggested to create an “Open Public Administration Commons“. This place can serve as a networking platform that provides the opportunity to connect to ongoing research projects, give direct feedback not only to the final results, but on an ongoing basis while the discovery is happening, to test ideas in early stages, but foremost to provide a channel that helps to push findings directly to government so that public managers can act on the findings and find a guide on how to tackle current and urgent problems. Many agencies face similar or at least comparable problems and while it is helpful to understand that there are best practices cases out there, it is much more important to actually make the social connections between government officials to share insights on the day-to-day “How To” questions that are coming up while people are trying to solve problems. I would like to take the platform idea a step further and make this platform a place for those of us who are teaching OG-related topics to find up-to-date case studies that can be used in classrooms. We can educate cohorts of MPA or IS students that already know about the newest developments when they enter their first jobs.

Together with my co-authors, I have written about the idea of an “Open Public Administration Commons” in a recently published article in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: “Towards Open Public Administration Scholarship” (email me if you want to read a copy of this article).

Related reading:

Schweik, C., Mergel, I., Sanford, J., Zhao, J. (2011): Toward Open Public Administration Scholarship, in: Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (J-PART), Minnowbrook III: A Special Issue, Special Issue Editors: Beth Gazley and David M. Van Slyke, Vol. 21, Supplement 1, January 2011, pp.i175-198.

The Future of Public Administration around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective

Professors O’Leary, Kim and Van Slyke have just published “The Future of Public Administration around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective” book.

My chapter in the book is titled: “The use of social media to dissolve knowledge silos in government”. I argue that public managers are facing the dilemma of ever increasing, changing and complex mandates to innovate with shrinking budgets. At the same time, they need to tap into existing knowledge so that they don’t reinvent the wheel on a daily basis in their search for innovation. Government itself is a large system of disconnected units, where it is impossible to know in which corner of the system similar problems have occurred and what the remedies are that were used to address the problem. Social media – and especially social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, but also niche networks, such as GovLoop or MuniGov2.0 – can help to build cross-sectional networking ties for public managers to access knowledge already available in (and outside of ) government. Moreover, there are a lot of interesting initiatives underway that help public managers to dissolve the existing bureaucratic knowledge silos that exist as a result of departmental structures (see for example Intellipedia or Diplopedia – and many more).

Email me if you would like to read a copy of the chapter.

Georgetown Press - Minnowbrook perspective

Social media: Digital divide, digital access and digital literacy

Today, I taught a class on digital divide, digital access and digital literacy in my New Media Management class in Maxwell’s MPA program. The goal was to make the students aware of the traditional viewpoint of the dichotomous value of digital divide (you either have access or you don’t) and the difference to continuous digital access. Access in the US has mostly to do with convenience, such as the time, location and speed of access: instead of working on your own laptop, people might have to to go to a community center or library to get access; they have a dial-up connection instead of a convenient T1 connection; or access is limited based on their agencies’ or department’s rules of access to their private social networking accounts.

I decided to start the class today with glasses: Each student received a pair of plastic glasses that can be found in the birthday isle at Target (or any other department store – thanks to Steve Sawyer at SU’s ischool) for this idea. I gave them Qtips and Vaseline to smear the front of their glasses and asked them to read what was recently posted on our class Facebook group. While this felt like a kid’s birthday party to them at the beginning, it seemed as if they were stunned when I asked them what they were able to read. Answer: Nothing. Then I asked them where the button is on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to help them read or hear the content. Answer: Don’t know? Is there one? The point I was trying to make was that none of the most popular social networking sites seems to be compliant with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to give people with disabilities equal access to digital information that government is posting online.

To drive my point home, I gave the students a short article about my former student Alexander Williams to read, who is studying in the Disability Studies program at Syracuse University. He was recently featured in a campus publication telling his story and work he is doing in Ghana. You can watch the video about him here:

A Light In the Dark from Christine Mehta on Vimeo.

Alexander came to the New Media Management class today to talk about how he is using Web 2.0 tools to connect teachers in his organization who are teaching blind kids to use technology. He was inspired by the topics we talked about last semester in my Government 2.0 class and created a Ning platform to bring the teachers in Ghana together on a joint platform. Alexander is a true champion lobbying for acceptance and equal opportunities to include disability access into the considerations of public managers early on. One of the points my students made was, that governments usually operate with limited resources and do whatever they can to cater to the majority of citizens and that unfortunately there might not be enough resources to find solutions for minorities. A true “developing country” perspective. Alexander was kind enough to patiently point out that it will take much longer (and is more costly) to close the gap if we leave people behind instead of working together to go through the process step by step. And of course: Resources will always be scarce.

Then the question about numbers came up – “So how many people are we talking about here” – which is completely irrelevant in the U.S. context at least, because the Rehabilitation Act says specifically that federal employees and members of the public have the right to equal access of digital information.

The main take-away from this course section was:

a) Most of the popular social networking sites that are promoted in government right now are not compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and it is extremely difficult for screen readers and other aids to navigate Facebook (Twitter is an exception because it’s solely text-based).

b) What seems to be highly convenient for students on University campuses (24/7 free wireless access), is not the reality for most citizens.

c) Social networking sites might increase the digital divide, leaving people behind who could hugely benefit from tapping into networks that can help them connect to government, help themselves and share information.

Please leave your feedback: Did I hit the mark? Is anything missing? Did I interpret the law and the reality correctly?