Citizenville

Gavin Newsom wants social media to reinvent government.

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    Citizenville by Gavin Newsom
    Penguin Group
    272 pp.
    View Caption

Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California, has a startling proposition: What if government solved problems in the style of Yelp, Wikipedia, Google, and FarmVille? 

In Citizenville, co-written with Lisa Dickey, Newsom outlines his learnings from being mayor of one of the most plugged-in cities in the world, San Francisco. "The biggest problem with government today," he writes, "is that we've set it up to manage problems, not solve them. Too often, people in government are more interested in maintaining the status quo, because that's how they maintain their jobs." Instead, he says, why not integrate tech-based fixes? Why not bring the takeaways from Silicon Valley's private sector into the public sector?

From the gamification of civic engagement to open data to hackathons to crowdsourced innovations, Newsom presents some of the tech entrepreneurship scene's greatest lessons and suggests how they might work for local government.

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Take, for example, FarmVille. An addictive game, sure, but also a revolutionary concept that government could apply to the real world. In FarmVille, players earn points or pay to grow their virtual farms. Newsom posits that, in real life, we could gamify community service so that everyday citizens would be rewarded for helping out around town. Reporting a pothole, organizing a park cleanup – these would score points in the author's real world scenario. He calls the concept "Citizenville." Imagine if we spent as much time cultivating our actual communities as we did our virtual communities?

And that's just the beginning. Newsom presents a wealth of exciting possibilities. And while Citizenville the game seems feasible enough, the reader wonders which of his many ideas should be given a shot and which proposals shouldn't go beyond the whiteboard.

One success story with revolutionary implications involves Oakland's Crimespotting website. When one Web-savvy citizen took it upon himself to scrape Oakland's crime data from the site CrimeWatch and plot it on an easy-to-understand, online map that launched in 2007, it was groundbreaking. For no money and with few resources, Mike Migurski created a useful tool that kept everyday Oaklanders informed – simply because he cared about his city.

Newsom imagines that, if government had been tasked with such an undertaking, "the cost might reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars” for tech talent, “and the end product may or may not have been as good as what Mike and his colleagues produced." Therefore, just as Apple offers limitless possibilities for development thanks to its open application programming interface (API), the government should open its public data. The public sector should enable the Migurskis of the world to create government apps that can empower citizens. “Government doesn’t have to create everything; it just has to let others create,” the author writes.

Newsom also tells the story of how, in 2008 during his second term as mayor, he saw how technologically hampered city government agencies were: In particular, the call center for 311 (the city's catchall nonemergency number) yielded reports in PDF format – not much more helpful than a huge stack of printouts. So he brought in Brian Purchia as new media director whose team transformed 311's list of disparate queries and complaints into useful, online data sets.

San Francisco then launched DataSF.org, which made government data publicly available online. And they were the first city government to premiere a Twitter-based 311 service. Then in March 2010, Newsom's team expanded their tech efforts. San Francisco became the first city to launch Open 311, "the first national API in government history." By reinventing how to collect and share public information, San Francisco, New York, and other digitally savvy cities democratize data and welcome their citizens as collaborators.

To be sure, "Citizenville" presents optimistic solutions based on concepts that have succeeded and scaled in the mostly for-profit tech world. But the public sector and the private sector are different. While a tech company can easily pivot at will, the public sector must answer to taxpayers. And not all citizens will see value in, say, a Yelp-like rating system for the DMV or X Prize-style competitions to address municipal problems.

Nonetheless, "Citizenville" is an important book for anyone who’s curious about tech and civic engagement. As we saw with the crucial role that social media played in New York City government during Hurricane Irene and in the nation as a whole during the recent Presidential debates, Web-based tools are indeed the future of managing the needs of and engaging with citywide, statewide, and national populations.

Newsom is at times overly idealistic about the potential of applying tech startup learnings to government. But "Citizenville" can start a dialogue about how the people have long felt alienated by government – and how technology has the power to change that.

Grace Bello is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.

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