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Knowledge Landscapes

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

By Lisa Saye
June 22, 2019

Modernity in a Low-roof WaterTaxi. Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Lisa Saye © 2018

Redefining Bureaucratic Spaces

Cameras can record everything. They see what we don’t see and they hear things we could never recall completely. Landscapes still make good photos, especially the ones that can capture life in an instant. By definition, a landscape highlights all the features and characteristics of an area. By intuition, knowledge landscapes should highlight the innovation, history, culture and people of an area. Participants that make up knowledge landscapes include teachers, students, schools, inventors, IT Techs, public sector employees, private sector employees, non-profit workers and volunteers, family, friends, nature and the built environment. In knowledge landscapes each participant is a native and each participant owns the space.

Knowledge landscapes are expansive. They are the main areas and the sub-areas in which public servants work and navigate. If you said that the entire world was a compilation of millions and millions of knowledge landscapes, you would be directionally correct. To be more accurate, you would have to say that about the entire galaxy. “How many kingdoms know nothing of us?” asked 17th Century Mathematician Blaise Pascal. A fine question, indeed. To begin to answer it, one must acknowledge that knowledge landscapes are endless, even those on earth. Thus, we should treat them as endless opportunities to learn, to teach and to explore.

What does learning about, teaching about or exploring a knowledge landscape mean for a public servant? Moreover, should knowledge landscapes even enter the lexicon of public administration? Isn’t Michael Lipsky’s 1980 street-level bureaucracy description enough? To be sure, Lipsky captured the concept in a phrase that never gets old, but nearly forty years later the landscape and its participants have not only changed, but the participants and the technology they use are now inseparable. For example, public servants communicate with citizens differently, serve citizens differently and anticipate changes in nature and technology as opportunities to use and find other best practices in order to meet the needs of their citizens. Drones are delivering groceries, cars are driving themselves and phones are camera-computers. Street-level bureaucracy is now Facetime on a 6-inch phone screen or posts on a social media website. Knowledge landscapes are redefining bureaucratic spaces each time that we discover a technological invention that either replaces us or allows us to be anywhere our citizens need for us to be.

Public servants are usually the first and the last to notice how useful knowledge landscapes are in delivering public services. In my September 2017 column in PA Times entitled, “Co-opting Civic Tech,” I noted how past and present authors and practitioners have encouraged using new tools to better serve the public. Civic tech, or civic technology, has become an indispensable tool for public administrators. Public servants are using every relevant and new knowledge space and tool to get the job done. The built environment can also serve as a knowledge space. Public servants identity the park, the building, the abandoned building, the existing railway or the buried and forgotten communication line as new spaces to carry out their duties. Built environments hold an enormous amount of history and culture within their bricks, rooms and windows or on their streets. Built environments are spaces that allow the spirit of public service to return to places that we have forgotten or to become a part of places that we should never forget.

Co-Opting Knowledge Spaces

Public servants have a lot to do. I certainly do not want to overwhelm them with one more task. So, I won’t. But allow me to suggest that we conduct a naming ceremony that begins and ends in this paragraph. We really need to put a name to what it is that we do every day and more importantly, we need to put a name to where we do our work. We are already co-opting spaces—civic, technological, natural and otherwise. We do so because of the value inherent in those spaces, value we detect in the space’s utility as well as in that space’s personality. We can immediately identify the formal and informal community leaders during an emergency as well as during the annual neighborhood clean-up. We know which space holds the knowledge that we need to serve the public and we are not shy about co-opting that space or personality.

We are creating knowledge spaces from a combined set of participants and that is something we should be proud of. Every space, built or otherwise, is a potential place to work. We are careful in spaces we need to be careful within, but we must be creative in any space that we inhabit. This is not another call for public servants to take the lead, because we are already leading in this space. This call asks that we shake off any indifference and passivity we may still have as we continue to define our role in righting the wrongs of yesterday and in eliminating the wrongs of tomorrow.


 The copyrighted ‘Modernity in a Low-roof WaterTaxi’ image was taken by Lisa Saye in Bangkok, Thailand.

Author: Lisa Saye teaches Applied Statistics for Public Service and Research Methods for The School of Public Service at DePaul University. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Troy University and her Doctorate in Public Administration at The University of Alabama. She can be reached by email at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Knowledge Landscapes

  1. Dr. Lisa Saye Reply

    June 29, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    Hello Dr. Robinson,

    Thanks so much for your comment. Always a joy to read!

  2. Marquice D Robinson Reply

    June 28, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    Dr. Saye, nice camera view and great job with the article!

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