Flows of Experts in the U.S. Federal Government

Dan Kitson, Brown University

Sociological studies of scientific expertise within public agencies tend to focus on abstract knowledge – whether ideas, conceptual frameworks, or paradigms – as the epistemological basis of expertise. However, expertise also consists of tacit knowledge gained from personal experience and dependent on institutional context. Tacit knowledge can deeply affect the nature of expertise, but it is difficult to measure. This paper takes a step towards measuring the circulation of tacit knowledge within the US federal government by examining the movement of expert employees between federal agencies over time. Since tacit knowledge accumulates over the course of experts’ careers, movements of experts between agencies can be a useful indirect measure for the flow of tacit knowledge. This paper assesses the extent to which experts circulate between US federal agencies and identifies the pathways along which they circulate. To examine such flows, I employ a newly compiled data set consisting of individual-level information on the entire federal workforce, from 1973 to 2020. The data set accounts for 94.7 million person-years of data and includes variables for employing agency, occupation, pay level, highest earned degree, and disciplinary field of training. It harmonizes organizational changes over time so that I can track employees as they move between agencies. I offer a descriptive analysis of experts – defined as employees working jobs requiring knowledge of a scientific discipline or where scientific research is a primary duty – working for the federal government in comparison to a sample of non-expert employees. I also employ a clustering algorithm to show flows of experts between agencies, using a network graph to identify which agency clusters accumulate tacit knowledge through the circulation of experts. I use these results to draw conclusions about the prevalence, organization, and network structure of tacit knowledge among experts within the US federal government.

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 Presented in Session 27. Expertise and the U.S. State