Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government

  • Gavin Newsom with Lisa Dickey
  • The Penguin Press
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • February 11, 2013

The lieutenant governor of California explores how modern technology could potentially affect how we govern our communities.

Gavin Newsom believes in people. He believes that people — crowds of them, tapping away at their laptops and iPhones — can decide where tax dollars should be spent, influence legislation and fix some of society’s biggest issues. As a former mayor of San Francisco and the current lieutenant governor of California, he clearly knows how the big machine of government works; and yet he spends the entirety of his new book discussing how those crowds can use technology to sidestep the very bureaucracy whose work has afforded him so much recognition and power over the years.

The primary toolset for this techno-populism, he argues, is the government’s own data on everything from smoking rates to geography, opened to the public and used by altruistic web developers as the foundation for an ever-increasing number of apps and websites that serve the common good: think of Google Earth, the beneficiary of government satellite data, or websites that rely on statistical datasets to monitor metropolitan crime. “Government doesn’t have to create anything,” he writes. “It just has to let others create.”

Newsom backs up his point by quoting from a veritable Who’s Who of celebrity thinkers. Bill Clinton opines about social media and how it can make government bureaucracy more transparent and open; Jennifer Pahlka talks about founding Code for America, which pairs software engineers and programmers with cities in desperate need of web-based solutions; Rachel Sterne, New York City’s first chief digital officer, details all the locally focused apps based on public data.

Newsom does provide some ideas of his own, most notably the titular “Citizenville,” in which citizens can collect points “by doing real-life good” in their communities. He models it on Farmville, an online game where players can grow virtual farms. While he treats the concept as a “shorthand for how government needs to adapt to this new technological age,” he keeps returning to it throughout the book: “It’s the perfect mashup of gaming and real civic engagement, with the bonus of not only virtual rewards, but real physical rewards.” At moments like that, he almost seems to channel Thomas Friedman and other mass-market intellectuals, with their sweeping pronouncements of what will fix the world.

Nor does his relentlessly optimistic vision end there. From mayors using Twitter to address constituents’ needs in real time, to city websites devoted to finding free parking, there’s no bureaucratic knot that can’t be unraveled by judicious use of technology. “Our government is clogged with a dense layer of bureaucracy, a holdover from an earlier era that adds bloat and expense,” Newsom writes, in one of several passages that pillory the current system as a relic of the horse-and-buggy days. “But technology can get rid of that clay layer by making it possible for people to bypass the usual bureaucratic morass.”

In the end, he argues, technology will transform how people interact with their government. No longer will the political elites pass down laws and only care about their constituents’ concerns as Election Day approaches; social networks and other websites are turning that interaction into a two-way street, with those constituents offering constant feedback on their representatives’ performance. Reaching across the political aisle (Newsom is a Democrat), he offers up House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as an example of this tech savvy at work. Cantor’s YouCut program, launched in May 2010, allows people to vote online for items to be sliced from the federal budget; those items with the most votes eventually end up on the House floor for an up-or-down vote on elimination. (Nor is Cantor the only example cited of Republicans’ newfound respect for technology.)

Newsom outlines his theories with engaging style, never getting lost in the weeds of lengthy policy description; and while he can’t resist patting himself on the back at moments for some of the initiatives launched in San Francisco under his tenure (“But in March 2010, our team really outdid itself”), he’s equally quick to highlight his failures, including a muddled attempt to open his daily schedule to public scrutiny (“But the bottom line was, I compromised”). He writes with an awareness that not everyone in his audience is as technologically inclined as the people he profiles, giving clear rundowns of what various websites and apps actually do.

Despite his buoyancy, the idea of crowd-sourcing government does have its limits. A community with a Facebook page could sway legislators to contribute more budget dollars to a public park; a dedicated team of activists and programmers could take public data about health-care facilities and create an app that lists hospitals by quality of care. But certain tasks are still best left to experts — military offensives and Supreme Court decisions are two examples that leap immediately to mind. In addition, Newsom acknowledges that bureaucracy is firmly entrenched in the American landscape, and that the government workers who fill its ranks have virtually no interest in shaking up the status quo, especially if it means the release of potentially embarrassing information into the blogosphere.

Those caveats aside, Newsom succeeds in showing how modern technology could potentially affect how we govern our communities, especially on a local level. You might not subscribe to his enthusiasm, but you can’t deny that the ideas have potential.

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon, and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.


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