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Knowledge mobilisation in public service reform: integrating empirical, technical and practical wisdom

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Background Public service practitioners on all levels aim to solve increasingly complex policy problems by making use of different forms of evidence. While there are many complex models of knowledge mobilisation, not enough attention is paid to the types of knowledge that are mobilised for public service reform. Ward (2017) has returned to Aristotle’s knowledge types; empirical, technical and practice wisdom, to address this gap.
Aims and objectives This paper applies the theoretical work of Ward (2017) and Flyvbjerg (2001) to the everyday work and practice of frontline public service providers with the aim of identifying core elements of knowledge mobilisation in the practice of public service reform in the context of local governance.
Methods The data is from a case study of a Scottish local authority conducted as part of the What Works Scotland research programme. The paper derives insights from 16 qualitative interviews with service providers in housing, waste management, policing and greenspace services, and 12 observations, analysed using thematic analysis. Findings The findings suggest that empirical or technical knowledge is not sufficient on its own for sustainable solutions to localised policy problems. The practice wisdom of service providers, balancing ethical concerns with diverse perspectives, is a form of knowledge that is not fully valued or recognised in public service reform.
Discussion and conclusions Future research should aim to understand how the integration of empirical, technical and practice knowledge might be achieved through more co-productive relationships between researchers, knowledge mobilisers and service providers.

key messages
  1. Empirical or technical knowledge on its own is not sufficient for sustainable solutions to localised policy problems

  2. The practice wisdom of frontline service providers, balancing ethical concerns with diverse perspectives, is key to public service reform

  3. Researchers could give greater attention to understanding how empirical, technical and practical knowledge can be given equal value and integrated

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Keywords: evidence-based policy; knowledge; local governance; mobilisation; public service reform

Affiliations: 1: University of Glasgow, UK 2: University of the Highlands and Islands, UK

Appeared or available online: January 21, 2020

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