Welcome to Citizenville

Welcome to Citizenville
Daniel Hertzberg
by Jim Cottrill |
Who published the one book on government in 2013 that conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich told all true believers that they should read? Well, the author is now lieutenant governor of California. Before that, he was mayor of San Francisco. That’s right: It’s Gavin Newsom ’89.

Ten years after his election as mayor of San Francisco, and three years into his term as lieutenant governor of California, Gavin Newsom ’89 enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a politician who does not shy away from controversy. Newsom’s latest book, Citizenville, exemplifies this trait by proposing a number of provocative new ideas for improving the connections between citizens and their governments through increased transparency and data sharing. In doing so, Newsom—who describes the experience of seeing himself burned in effigy as “one thing you never get used to”—is sure to fan the flames of current debate over the concept of personal privacy and the extent to which privacy is an individual right protected by government.

Citizen Newsom: From a conversation with Gavin Newsom and SCM Editor Steven Boyd Saum in October 2013.

Newsom’s central premise is that technology joins us together as citizens in ways that we are only just now beginning to appreciate, and that government must begin to leverage this connectivity in order to better serve the people. Government, in Newsom’s view, needs to remove regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to innovation that prevent us from making full use of the wealth of public and private data that could improve decision making if only it were accessible to citizens (a point that Newsom seemed to be echoing symbolically in early September when he officially opened the new span of the Bay Bridge by cutting a steel chain “ribbon” with an industrial welding torch—literally removing a barrier to connectivity). Newsom also incorporates the theme of “connectivity” into his research for the book, calling on his wide network of personal connections to well-known figures in industry, politics, and entertainment for their thoughts on technology and government, including Cory Booker, Sergey Brin, Bill Clinton, George Clooney, Al Gore, Arianna Huffington, and Joe Trippi.

Through a number of personal vignettes and conversations with political and business leaders, Newsom articulates a vision of government in which technology improves performance in three critical areas:

Transparency: Government has the ability to make important data readily available and usable by citizens, but it must overcome an inherent inclination toward secrecy. Government data on things like crime, poverty, and public health should be made openly available to citizens and to entrepreneurs who can design apps that can both serve the public interest and stimulate local economies. For example, Oakland Web designer Mike Migurski, during a two-week holiday break from work, used publicly available crime data from Oakland’s CrimeWatch website to create an interactive website, called Crimespotting, that citizens could use to analyze crime trends in their neighborhoods. Newsom also cites his own experience helping to implement Open 311, “the first national API in government history,” as a model for how government can increase both the availability and usability of public data.

Efficiency: Allowing citizens and private-sector companies to use public data can increase efficiency by eliminating red tape and gridlock and produce quicker, less-expensive results. Bypassing government through peer-to-peer, social media approaches can speed up the process of finding solutions that work for ordinary citizens. Newsom envisions a future in which citizens will use game platforms that have been developed by private companies (think: FarmVille) to play games in which the tokens or money earned from game play would be used to make actual improvements in the player’s neighborhood. In this way, technology can be used to provide powerful individual incentives for citizens to directly initiate improvements in their neighborhoods and communities without any of the delays, red tape, or inefficiency of government.

Innovation: Social networking approaches can improve dialogue between citizens and public officials and increase the range of policy ideas that are brought forward. For example, Representative Eric Cantor (a highly visible Republican member of the House of Representatives) has utilized Facebook’s “Open Graph” protocol to create an interactive program called Citizen Cosponsors, which allows constituents to co-sponsor legislation that they support, to offer comments and suggestions, and to receive automatic updates on the legislation to their timeline and news feed. In addition to such social incentives, both government and private industry can use the Internet to promote contests that provide material incentives for innovative new ideas. Newsom cites several recent examples from both government and private industry, including the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, designed by the Department of Energy to speed the shift to more energy-efficient lighting, and the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, which encourages the creation of cars that can go at least 100 miles on a single gallon of gas.

A final important theme underlying Newsom’s argument is that these improvements in government performance can best be realized at the local, rather than the national, level. In example after example, whether the issue is crime, education, or maintenance of roads and infrastructure, Newsom demonstrates how technology could improve the local responsiveness and efficiency of government. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, states and local governments are the “laboratories of democracy.” On the surface, it’s unsurprising that a former mayor like Newsom would embrace this view. However, it may also seem ironic for many readers to learn that a Democratic politician like Newsom, who first drew national attention for championing the liberal cause of marriage equality, seems so committed to core conservative values like the “devolution” of most governmental responsibilities to the local level and the elimination of burdensome regulations that inhibit innovation from private industry. Even more shocking—conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich has embraced the book and encouraged fellow conservatives to read it!

But probably the most controversial idea in the book is that—like it or not—our common conceptions of privacy no longer exist in our technologically connected world. Throughout the book, in sections with titles like “Living in a Glass House,” “We All Have Paparazzi Now,” and “The End of Boundaries,” Newsom hammers home the point that our expectations of privacy are rapidly withering away as the social networking generation comes of age. We have become increasingly comfortable sharing our personal data with others, and because these data are already used by corporations to target us for advertising, why shouldn’t they be used to improve the ability of governments to improve public safety and deliver services? Newsom clearly believes that our increasing willingness to share our data can have a variety of positive implications for the performance of government.

But the devil is in the details, as supporters of Edward Snowden might point out. Since the initial release of Newsom’s book, revelations about the National Security Administration’s surveillance programs have heightened public awareness about governmental intrusions on personal privacy. Given this increased concern, many readers may conclude that voluntarily sharing information with your friends on Facebook is not the same thing as releasing that data more widely for use by anyone, particularly the government.

To be fair, Newsom does recognize that transparency and sharing can sometimes be problematic. For example, making the calendars of elected officials publicly available (as has been done recently in San Jose) can have a chilling effect on the willingness of political rivals to meet and discuss compromise. But on the whole, Newsom is convinced that the benefits of transparency and data sharing far outweigh the potential harm. And while this is certainly a position that will spark controversy and debate, it is also one that has real potential for improving government performance, particularly at the local level. In the end, despite the controversy (or perhaps, because of it), it is a conversation worth having.

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Summer 2014

Table of contents

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Mission Matters

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How's the water?

A lab on a chip helps provide the answer—which is a matter of life and death when the question is whether drinking water contains arsenic.