Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government
US: Jul 2013
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a lot more time on his hands than he used to.
When he was San Francisco mayor, from 2004 to 2011, Newsom was busy, busy, busy. He (briefly) legalized gay marriage. He helped reform the city’s generous welfare cash payment program. He worked on universal healthcare. His messy personal life provided endless fodder for a mercilessly snarky local press.
These days, Newsom has slipped below the radar. (Old Sacramento joke: What does the lieutenant governor do? He wakes up and reads the paper. If the governor is not dead, he goes back to sleep.)
So how does an ambitious pol like Newsom keep a public profile when the office he occupies resembles less a launching pad and more a dead end? Last year, Newsom tried television, hosting a wonky talk show on Al Gore’s Current TV. In early January, the same week Gore sold the network to Al Jazeera, Newsom announced he’d be parting ways with Current.
Now, in the tradition of politicians treading water between gigs, Newsom, 45, has written his first book. It’s neither a political treatise nor a memoir (which could have been a juicy read considering his once-scandal-plagued but glittering personal life, battles with dyslexia, brutal San Francisco political battles and business success as a restaurateur, winemaker and hotelier). Instead, it’s a look at how digital tools are changing the way citizens interact with government.
The topic seems a natural for a politician who came up in the shadow of Silicon Valley, ran one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country and seems to enjoy rubbing elbows with the country’s most innovative tech thinkers.
Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, co-written with Lisa Dickey, is a survey of Internet experts, digital thinkers and grass-roots activists who advance lots of ideas and examples — some very compelling — about how allowing government data to be culled and creatively used by entrepreneurs can make government more transparent, lead to a more engaged citizenry and just make life more all-around convenient ... and fun. (The title is a play on the popular social networking game, FarmVille, where players create virtual crops, tend virtual barnyards and annoy their Facebook friends.)
“The future is sharing — open data, open participation, open source, open everything,” Newsom writes. “And it must happen at every level.”
For instance: Oakland’s crime-tracking website, Crimewatch, was outdated and virtually useless. So Mike Magurski, a Web designer, decided to create a scraping tool that would mine the city’s public data and allow him to create an interactive crime data site that anyone could use. Did the city of Oakland thank him? No, it tried to thwart him, but in the end it relented.
“Oakland,” writes Newsom, “got a free gift from a motivated citizen.”
Then there’s tech veteran Jennifer Pahlka, who came up with the idea of Code for America, inspired by the altruistic spirit of Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Working with forward-thinking cities, Code for America identifies government problems, then recruits Web developers and designers to come up with solutions: It has created a map for Boston that shows snowbound fire hydrants so locals can dig them out in case of emergency. And there’s a program for parents that uses GPS to track school buses.
Newsom’s is a boosterish approach: Government openness can result only in improved civic life. Get government out of the way and let entrepreneurs figure out how to use the reams of data collected by government agencies. By creating apps, mostly.
It’s hard to argue with the adage that information equals power, and the impulse behind this book is good, even necessary. But the book is marred by Newsom’s streak of self-pity and self-serving explanations about how he often failed to practice what he is now preaching when he was mayor. (Marred? Oh, who am I kidding? These passages are among the most entertaining in the book as Newsom struggles to keep a straight face as he attempts to square his high-minded information über alles imperative with his venal political side.)
With at least some self-awareness on display, he revisits his disastrous (tech-inspired) decision to stretch his 2008 State of the City speech into several lengthy online speeches, which drew entirely apt comparisons to Fidel Castro’s long-windedness. He quotes the fabulous headline from one writer’s review: “YouTube equals MeBored.”
He spearheaded the creation of a program called SFStat, “to show them we were serious about making ourselves accountable and cleaning up government.” He writes: “Civil service, pension, budgets, technology — we put everything out on the table for the public to see, in hopes of shining a light on what needed improving.”
Yet when a local paper, using information gleaned from SFStat, notes that city overtime pay was up, Newsom accuses the paper of scandal mongering. Isn’t the whole point of releasing such data to let taxpayers know that overtime in their city is up 12 percent?
Likewise, Newsom embraced transparency in his own office — but only in theory.
He directed his staff to put his calendar online. “Even your fund-raising meetings?” asked his chief of staff. “And that stopped me dead,” Newsom writes.
The episode led to what he deemed an unfair accusation by the San Francisco Chronicle that he was withholding information. “The Chronicle’s rush to accuse us of wrongdoing is the perfect example of another reason why politicians are reluctant to give up information: It often ends up being used against them,” Newsom writes.
You’re either for transparency in government or you aren’t. Once it’s out in the open, trying to control how information is used is as foolish as trying to hold back a dam once it’s sprung a leak. Or a WikiLeak.