Management & Labor

Gavin Newsom on How Citizens Can Use Technology to Influence Government

California’s lieutenant governor, widely seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate, writes about the importance of citizen engagement in his new book “Citizenville.”
May 2013
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, is widely believed to be a potential gubernatorial candidate. (Photo: AP)

In his new book “Citizenville,” California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom explores how everyday citizens can influence their governments through technology. Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, is widely believed to be a potential gubernatorial candidate. Here’s a condensed and edited interview with Newsom.

At what point did you realize there was a whole book to be written about this topic?

[Internet media pioneer] Tim O’Reilly and other leaders came to us and said, “Let’s get these data sets online, let’s see if we can open up a city app store.” They encouraged us to take the open data executive order [from President Obama in early 2009] and take it locally in San Francisco. I remember sitting in my first department head meeting. I wish I could have recorded it. Without exception, every one of my department heads looked at me like, “What the hell is this?”

Read the May issue of Governing magazine.

A few months went by, and only two or three of them took me up on it. The first data sets that went up were from the Department of Environment on recycling centers. The app was called EcoFinder. It was a simple way to find your local recycling center and it showed how to recycle and compost. It triggered my passion. It was like a bright light went off.

Can open government succeed if elected officials don’t embrace it?

Even in cities that pride themselves on being open and transparent like San Francisco, it’s still an excruciating challenge. If you want to move the mouse, you’ve got to move the cheese. You’ve got to change the incentives. Our attitude in the past has, by default, been secrecy and closed systems. The default has got to be openness and active citizen engagement.

We have to govern like we campaign. We’re very good at trying to engage in two-way conversations when we campaign, and when we get into office we tend to go back into a broadcast model: You vote and I decide. That’s not working for folks anymore. The principles of the campaign -- organization, bottom-up thinking, volunteering, engagement -- those principles can’t end on Election Day. We’ve got to recognize that top-down, hierarchical thinking, let alone governance, is not relevant to the world we’re living in. You have to engage in conversation. Those traditional town hall meetings just aren’t going to cut it anymore.

If you’re a more conservative leader, you can look at the opportunity to substantially reduce the costs to taxpayers. You put data sets up in a way for the public and private sector to do things that, in the past, only the government did for them. Then, taking the more progressive framework, this notion of community, conscious engagement and partnership in terms of solving problems has appeal as well. It transcends technology.

What do you want California to do differently when it comes to technology?

We’ve all had nightmare procurements with IT. It’s truly an exception that an IT project proves to be as good as we claim it to be. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, and it’s a miracle we get away with it. That’s why I wrote the book. I was frustrated by my own inability to convince people at the state level to be aware of it.

Our secretary of state’s office was rightly criticized for taking 60 calendar days to provide a business license in the state. That should take days, not months. The response was that they didn’t have the money to hire people, and they are doing a tech upgrade that will be online by 2016. It makes you want to scream. You can go to Silicon Valley right now, and get three or four kids to give you an app that aggregates the system.

It’s not just a technology problem. It’s an attitude. What I keep telling my colleagues in Sacramento is that it’s not about e-government; it’s about “we government.”

This is the hardest part to change, that old legacy mindset. We all have 1970s-era technology in our cities, and there are one or two guys who know how to work it, and you’ve got consultants with overtime bills who patch it together, hoping it won’t collapse.

What did you learn about while writing your book that you would have implemented in San Francisco if you had known about it?

No. 1, 2 and 3 is participatory budgeting. If I were back in the mayor’s office today, my budget would be submitted with that framework. I regret not knowing about that in my last year in office.

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