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Proprietary Knowledge: New Professional Perspectives on Information Sharing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Amy Uden
September 19, 2014

In a 2007 Governing blog post, Ken Miller offers seemingly straightforward advice to lower-level bureaucrats seeking to create organizational change: “Go underground.” He proscribes a three-part “guerilla warfare” path for affecting organizational improvement without ruffling feathers of non-proponents at the top. Of special interest to the aspiring public administrator is his instruction to identify a supportive manager and “involve others she trusts in the discussion.”

Miller’s emphasis on covert action points to a broader essential understanding that must be acquired in order to work in the bureaucracy—how to manage information effectively.

For a new professional, the delicate handling of information in the bureaucracy can be a sizable adjustment. The timing of information sharing, the framing of an issue and the genesis of an idea can all make or break a program’s acceptance and effectiveness. Information must therefore be managed with considerable care and caution, even in the best of circumstances.

Uden septThis information-sharing environment stands in sharp contrast to the typical patterns to which new professionals and recent students are accustomed. Young professionals, especially those of the Millenial age cohort, are not habituated to a world in which information must be guarded. Rather, they are used to accessing information that is fast-flowing and available at a single click.

While the dynamics of information management can feel foreign to new professionals, often public administrators see information control as a necessity. Particularly in a world defined by responsiveness to elected officials and frequently scrutinized by the media, the “roll out” of key information can be an art.

Richard Harwood and John Creighton, for example, highlight one way that information control is important to administrators. They interviewed a group of sector-bridging practitioners on their attitudes toward public engagement, and found that most of these administrators feel that too much deliberation, i.e. uncontrolled discussion of information, is risky.

Although at times a perceived necessity for practitioners, information control can nevertheless easily deteriorate into a significant problem. Harwood and Creighton emphasize the damage it causes to organizations’ models for public engagement. Moreover, information management without trust can damage the internal workings of an organization. If information is treated as a matter to be controlled externally, it can easily become a tool for control internally. Information becomes a commodity to be used, rather than the goal itself. Knowledge becomes proprietary. In turn, this environment ultimately encourages and even necessitates Miller’s “guerilla” approach.

Unfortunately, the academic environment in which administrators are being equipped does little to prepare them for even the best-case scenarios of information management. Academia fundamentally fosters a different way of thinking about information than the bureaucracy. Students are rewarded for openly providing the answer and contributing to the field of knowledge. By nature, the research process is intended for information sharing. Knowledge is generally the end goal of progress, not the means toward it.

Daniel Drezer offers the higher education perspective by noting, “Confessions of wrongness in academic research should be unsurprising… Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the social sciences is aware that…we do not get an awful lot of things right.” Yet again, his comments highlight the contrast between academia and bureaucracy. When a bureaucracy’s programmatic need is the objective, being wrong can dispel precious credibility that cannot be regained, sometimes damaging the long-term prospects of a program or service. Again, information has to be crafted and leveraged.

These authors’ comments demonstrate the challenging shift in thinking required by a practitioner who has recently been an academic. They also shed light on the academic-practitioner divide that internally troubles the field of public administration. Given the challenges related to the information environment of the bureaucracy and its dissimilarity to that of the academic environment, how can a new public administrator adapt?

In the short term, an important step in transitioning from academia to the agency is to shift from a “knowing the answer” mentality to a “solving the problem” mentality. A thoughtful approach about information sharing will undoubtedly be a necessity for new professionals, particularly in dealing with external actors like the media, the public, or other organizations.

In What Do I Do Next?, a 1980 handbook for new public servants, Warren Jones and Albert Solnit suggest that solution-sharing is a workable approach to overcoming the propriety nature of information in the bureaucracy. They quote a city manager who advised, “Don’t buy the problem. Let others work on the solutions, too. After all, it’s boring to see someone constantly trying to prove he’s got a hammerlock on truth.” Working toward a long-sighted and solution-driven approach can guide new professionals as they learn when and how to share information.

The profession may also benefit from meeting new practitioners halfway in their process of adapting to the information management environment. By working to capture and foster more of the collaborative knowledge-sharing environment of academia, supervisors can help disperse the proprietary attitude toward information. As Miller points out, having a trustworthy mentor with whom one can share all information and receive guidance as to the appropriate conveyance of this information can prove invaluable. The benefits of this openness are likely to be seen first within an organization, but as this mentality is perpetuated, they could ideally filter outward into an agency’s interactions with external actors.

Jones and Solnit also proscribe openness and flexibility in proposing solutions to problems.  “If you keep your options at the ready,” they write, “you won’t be frozen out of compromise decisions.” Harwood and Creighton similarly support a solution-driven approach by advocating for a “community-first” orientation.

The unique bureaucratic environment surrounding information sharing is a product of significant and entrenched forces. New public administration practitioners should recognize that their environment is one where information must be managed, and orient their efforts toward assisting in perceptive information sharing toward the goal of collaborative solution-crafting.

More significantly, though, the profession can be advanced not only by training new practitioners for this environment, but by working to improve it.  In a perfect world, Miller’s now-pragmatic “guerilla” approach might ultimately be rendered unnecessary. Strong supervisors facilitating the open exchange of information can begin to pave the way for better solutions, chipping away at the need for proprietary attitudes toward knowledge.


Author: Amy Uden is an associate planner at the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. The views expressed in this articles are personal and do not reflect to views of her employer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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