Newsom’s “Citizenville” Argues for Open Government Data, Cloud

Gavin Newsom chats with Larry Ellison at San Francisco’s city hall in 2011.

Gavin Newsom has enjoyed quite a career in government: after serving two terms as mayor of San Francisco, he became lieutenant governor of California. Maintaining the status quo of our current political system, one could argue, is in his best interest. Yet in his new book “Citizenville” (co-written with Lisa Dickey, who’s collaborated with a number of famous people on their books), Newsom argues that government should take a backseat to citizens solving society’s problems via collaboration and technology.

“We have to disenthrall ourselves, as Abraham Lincoln used to say, of the notion that politicians and government institutions will solve our problems,” he writes at one point. “The reality is, we have to be prepared to solve our own problems.” The government structure that facilitates such troubleshooting, he adds, “makes use of social media, networks, peer-to-peer engagement, and other technological tools.” In other words, government should open up its vast datasets so that armies of developers and engineers can transform that data into software we can all use.

According the book’s thesis, it’s more efficient for those engineers and concerned citizens to take open government data and use it to build apps that serve a civic function—such as Google Earth, or a map that displays crime statistics—than for government to try and provide these tools itself. It’s easier for citizens to engage with their representatives via Twitter and online chat rooms than gather in a physical room, where voices can be shouted down. He acknowledges that collaboration and technology has its limits: there will always be a need for elected leaders to help manage things, and nobody wants every bit of private data open to widespread scrutiny (to his credit, Newsom acknowledges his own issues with making his official schedule and meetings public).

It’s even possible, he suggests, to make civic involvement look more like “Farmville” or an online game—the “Citizenville” of the title. While he positions this idea as more of a metaphor than something that should be pushed into a reality, he repeatedly suggests that a “mashup of gaming and civic engagement,” powered by “real physical rewards,” could get people to interact more fully with their communities.

But there’s also a significant threat to this vision of supreme interconnectedness: government bureaucracy, which moves slowly and hates releasing anything—such as statistical data—that might cause politicians embarrassment.

“Our government is clogged with a dense layer of bureaucracy, a holdover from an earlier era that adds bloat and expense,” Newsom writes. “But technology can get rid of that clay layer by making it possible for people to bypass the usual bureaucratic morass.” Social networks have made interaction with government a two-way street, forcing politicians to listen to constituent concerns well before the next Election Day.

Newsom doesn’t limit his attacks on government bureaucracy to politicians; he also reserves some fire for the IT departments, which he views as an outdated relic. “The traditional IT department, which set up and maintained complex, centralized services—networks, servers, computers, e-mail, printers—may be on its way out,” he writes. “When the computer revolution began, IT departments were truly needed, as people had no idea how to set up and use the new technologies infiltrating their work space.”

Things these days are different, he argues: “As we move toward the cloud and technology gets easier to use, we’ll have less need for full-time teams of people to maintain our stuff.”

Newsom was mayor, of course, when city network engineer Terry Childs locked down San Francisco’s FiberWAN fiber-optic network and refused to give up the password. Freezing the network also stopped government emails and payroll. After days of outside contractors trying—and failing—to break into the system, Newsom finally had to march into Childs’ jail cell and practically beg him to surrender the 28-digit code. Whether that experience slanted Newsom against IT departments in general is hard to tell, but it’s clear from the book that he’s embraced cloud services as the way of the future.

That being said, Newsom does believe that online collaboration and sharing have their limits as forces for good. He’s not the biggest fan of WikiLeaks. “It has made government and diplomacy much more challenging and ultimately less honest,” he writes at one point, “as people fear that their private communications might become public.” Nonetheless, he thinks WikiLeaks and its ilk are ultimately here to stay: “It is happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s going to intensify.” Privacy isn’t dead, but it’s definitely on life support.

Newsom also isn’t a starry-eyed ingénue: he knows that bureaucracy is firmly baked into how we do things, and he knows that all these shiny technological tools won’t necessarily make government more efficient overnight. However, he’s also relentlessly optimistic in technology’s ability to bring about change—even if that change proves detrimental to our current system.

 

Image: aspen rock/Shutterstock.com

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