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Gavin Newsom On the Meaning of "Citizenville:" A Q&A

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, February 26 2013

Sergey Brin helps Gavin Newsom put on a pair of Google glasses. Image: Current TV

California's lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, has just published "Citizenville," a manifesto that urges American citizens and their local governments to re-imagine how the process of governing might work in the digital age. In Newsom's world, the emerging paradigm should be peer-to-peer: Ideas and actions should bubble up from citizens just as much as they come from government officials.

The former mayor of San Francisco channels the work of many people across the private and public sectors, most prominently O'Reilly Media's Tim O'Reilly and Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, a non-profit that sends out programming volunteer corps to help municipalities on coding projects. Newsom is also inspired by educational innovators like Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, and Udacity's Sebastian Thrun.

Some of the most interesting parts of Newsom's book arrive when he describes ideas he tried out as mayor, but which failed. For example, Newsom thought citizens would appreciate more in-depth briefs about the state of their city from the mayor, so one year, he recorded several "webisodes," addressing specific subjects like housing, the environment and education, instead of delivering one state-of-the-city speech. The effort bombed, with one New York Times blogger comparing Newsom to Fidel Castro.

"In asking public figures to release more information, we're asking them to risk scorn and public ridicule," Newsom writes. "This is the number one challenge of the open-data movement, in my opinion -- the reason why it hasn't taken off as it should."

Elsewhere, the book is more frustrating as the lieutenant governor addresses complicated issues such as digital privacy, and doesn't seem to provide any original ideas on how we might protect it. He simply declares: "There's no privacy left, even in your own home."

His potential rival in any future gubernatorial bid, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, has worked with many of the major tech companies to get them to comply with the state's online privacy law. As a profession of the new open-government political faith, "Citizenville" works. But if Newsom saw creating any new doctrine as part of his strategy, the book is a missed opportunity.

Newsom is a technophile, and his book repackages many of the tech initiatives that techPresident has chronicled over the past few years. But as Stephen Colbert sniped in a recent interview, Newsom's new book can induce a wince or two with sweeping generalizations and catch phrases, like: "Technology has rendered our current system of government irrelevant, so now government must turn to technology to fix itself."

Readers might find themselves thinking exactly what Colbert said:

"What the **** does any of that mean?"

In a recent phone Q&A, I went looking for answers.

Regardless of Newsom's intellectual heft — or, for the Colberts of the world, lack thereof — it's worth keeping track of what he thinks since he's widely expected to make another run for governor. Newsom himself has in the past openly expressed frustration with his position as Lieutenant Governor because of the position's relative lack of influence and resources. For now, he's working with Code for America and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to push more cities to adopt the principles of open government through the Citizenville challenge.

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Who did you write this for? We write about what you talk about in your book day in and day out, and there are a lot of people who are already doing what you discuss.

Two audiences. One, most importantly, to people living all across this country, regardless of party identification, regardless of their ideology. A lot of citizens in this country understand the power of technology, not just in the context of consumerism, but in the context of citizen engagement.

The second audience is public officials, again of all political stripes and persuasion all across this country, not just elected officials but government leaders, to begin to engage in two-way conversations, not this broadcast model, one-way conversation with the public, and solicit that sort of active citizen engagement.

I think one of the most honest parts of the book was when you admitted that doing this stuff isn’t a cakewalk, and you’re opening yourself up to risk and ridicule, and scorn even. So given all that, why should anyone want to put themselves at risk, and put themselves out there?

I think it’s the old adage, “Continue to do what you’ve done, and you’ll continue to get what you got,” which applies.

What that means in this context is that people are more and more dissatisfied with government and their elected officials. We lack trust because we lack transparency and openness.

My argument is that we can’t continue down this trajectory. It’s not acceptable to be elected by a very small percentage of your constituency. It’s not acceptable to say that you’re engaging with your constituency by holding a one-off townhall every six months, and what we’re doing, my argument is, is not working.

So you’re right, the transition is bumpy, and potentially problematic, but it’s absolutely incumbent, and in the world of Wikileaks, and in the world of Anonymous, where we have black hat hackers, not just white hat hackers, this idea that we could maintain the secrecy and privacy as our defaults in government, or any institution, is being challenged, and so I maintain that we either do it on our terms, which means we lean into this notion of openness and transparency, or it will be done to us, on the terms of the media, and the press, and citizens who will grow further dissatisfied.

Have you thought any more about placing a system of incentives for officials to do this kind of thing? There’s a certain level of inertia. There was this episode that you recounted in your book regarding this CrimeSpotting app, where this guy in Oakland pulled all this data from the databases of the police, and they said that it was putting a strain on their system.

It’s all perverse isn’t it, because who’s information is it? Who’s data is it? It’s been generated. It’s been conceived and produced with the support of the people, by taxpayers, and so this idea of us as stewards, or representatives of our constituents hoarding their data is rather perverse, from my perspective, and that foundation needs to be challenged.

The idea in Oakland that these data-scraping tools were creating a friction with these government officials was ultimately reconciled because of the perversity of the argument. We’re going through these whitewaters of change as it were, in all of these other capacities, but with the great challenge of what constitutes appropriate privacy, and appropriate secrecy as it relates to security and the like, and that remains an outstanding issue case by case by case.

In addition to what you’re doing now as an evangelist for all these ideas, is there anything you can do in your role as Lieutenant Governor to implement these ideas?

It’s been a source of some frustration, not only as lieutenant governor, but candidly, with the power vested in me not only as the mayor of not only the city, but the county of San Francisco, breaking through these IT cartels.

I say that lovingly. It’s not an indictment. The nature of the relationship with some of our network service providers is incredibly difficult to break down, and to expose these legacy systems, these databases that won’t communicate with one another, that 40+ years that we’ve been taping these things together.

In many ways you want to start over and leapfrog over those burdens. So it’s bigger than any individual, or good intent. It’s a movement we need. It’s not an initiative. It’s a movement. It’s an explanation of the benefits of the open source movement, of the open data movement. There has to be a real conversation with the public to demand a new approach to the old hierarchical IT approach to one that is increasingly the on-demand approach of the cloud, and the ubiquity of these services, and the apps, etc.

So are you talking about being stuck in relationships with tech vendors?

Directly. California is a case study isn’t it? Almost everyone in California is familiar with the scandal at our parks department for hoarding surplus money. They didn’t spend it. They hoarded it. So no money was spent, and I guess the critique was at a time when we’re closing parks, why didn’t they use this reserve money to keep the parks open? But if there’s no follow up on the now projected $1.9 billion upgrade to the courts case management system in California that started out in 2004 as a $260 million project, that was going to be completed in 2008 (and now we think it may be completed in 2015.) There’s no outrage that the DMV that engaged in a contract with EDS, and then HP, when they bought EDS is not even halfway done, and we just dumped the contract over 40-year-old technology for licenses. There’s none of the outrage on the payroll system that was $371 million and counting that we just fired the contractor. And I could go on with Calpers and their data center consolidation, which is arguably more inefficient after their 49 data centers were consolidated at a cost overrun of over $228 million.

So in a sense, you’re kind of telling people to wake up and pay attention.

And to prioritize appropriate investments, and thoughtful investments. In my years as mayor, I don’t recall ever a busload of people coming to a hearing demanding more IT investment. I don’t recall anyone ever coming up with stickers and flyers demanding open source strategies and, and open data initiatives. But I do recall with intimate familiarity and indelible memories tens of thousands of people over the years talking about health and human services, and programs for the poor and seniors.

So it’s the old adage, to your point, about incentives. If you want to move the mouse, you gotta move the cheese. We’ve gotta create a dialogue where we incentivize better behavior as it relates to technology, and citizen engagement, and really the bulk is raising the bar of awareness, and as you say, proselytizing this movement that’s taking shape, quite organically at the local level, and at the federal level, but try to make sense of it, and try to make a case for it in cities large and small across the country.

A lot of municipalities may not have the budget, or expertise, or ability to hire a chief innovation officer, so what are your thoughts on how they can get involved in this kind of change?

Well that’s important, and there is a need for data, and innovation officers, and it’s not a substitute for those hires. But not leaning into the principles of openness and transparency, and putting these datasets online, and creating these opportunities and platforms for third party developers to, without any cost to the taxpayers, to begin to solve big problems, [is not an option.]

And you’re seeing that with the partnerships with Code for America, and the fellowships with the Obama Administration. The ability now to develop solutions without taxpayer contributions is self-evident with so much of the civic currency that’s out there. People will do things reputationally, not for money, but because they have a desire to add value and make a difference.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Citizenville challenge that you put out there?

That goes precisely to the point, where we began with Mayor Lee, of course with the work he’s doing here in San Francisco, but Mayor Nutter who’s the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and we’re reaching out. I just met with Tom Cochran, the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week in DC.

We’re going to reach out to mayors all across the country, hundreds and hundreds of mayors to solicit support for this challenge. It’s about openness and transparency. It’s about third party developers mashing up this data, and forming new connections. It’s about advancing this, and scaling these principles.

And we thought – and I have a bias, I’ll admit it – we thought we’d start as the movement started, bottom-up, not top down. This is all about bottom up, not hierarchical, vending machine, or top down thinking.

So we really think mayors, city administrators, city council members can really play a bigger role than the federal government is playing, and the only way to sustainably scale this is creating this innovative, competitive environment between cities large and small, and be able to share those best practices, and these values in real-time, and that’s why Code for America is a natural conduit for these efforts.

How do elderly people, or people who don’t have a lot of computing power around them, participate in this world?

It’s a great question. The digital world is not just socioeconomic. In many respects, it remains generational. It’s not exclusively the issue of access to these tools and technologies. It’s the knowledge to be able to utilize these tools and technologies that’s also the impediment.

There’s no question that these issues have to be resolved. It’s less an issue with the millennial generation and the digital natives, but for those of us learning the language of technology, of course there are many instances of obvious examples of people who feel that they’re being left behind.

So as we work through this transition, I continue to argue for a hybrid model. I still believe in the traditional townhall. I just believe that it needs to be supplemented in terms of democratizing the voices of those participating. I still hold to the traditions of our founding fathers. Jefferson talked about individual liberty and self government. De Tocqueville talked so eloquently about the unique civic mindedness of America, of bringing back that virtual town square and getting people to meet up offline and not just online, and so connecting the two worlds, regardless of time of life, connecting a state of mind, as Bobby Kennedy used to say, to the opportunity to be actively engaged in government, not just a passive recipient of government services.

What are the role of leaders in this world of peer-to-peer governing that you’re advocating?

My friend Eric Liu [author of The Gardens for Democracy,] I think, said it better than I. I’ve tried to put it into words, and I can’t do it better than what he has been espousing.

What Eric said is, what we need to be is big on ‘What?’ Big in terms of government officials on dealing with the issues of ignorance and poverty and disease, but small on ‘How.’ Less prescriptive. Less hierarchical. It’s not about selling down an idea. It’s about soliciting support from outside the system from within your organization and embracing the expertise that’s latent inside of everybody, that unique perspective that everyone offers, and engaging and connecting with it. And it is the idea, as folks like Tim O’Reilly and others have advanced, that government can be more like a platform, and less like this vending machine.

And be a convener, help co-ordinate, help cultivate, so the language and metaphors change. It’s not command and control. It’s coordinating and cultivating. It’s not top-down, it’s truly bottom up. And it’s organic thinking, not machine thinking, and I think this connects the dots between the parties. I talk to some of my Republican friends. They love this language. Again, it’s the spirit of the individual, and that notion of self-government that inspires many conservatives.

And for my liberal and progressive friends, this notion of communitarism, that we’re all in this together, this idea of citizenship in the most idealistic sense of the term, and it’s a new way of thinking, informing a relationship with government and citizens, that I think is long overdue in this stale environment of who’s to blame in party politics where leaders aren’t leading, they’re quarrelling.

I was struck by a couple of other little details in your book. You said sending out your schedule isn’t as easy as pushing a button. Apart from hiring people, why isn’t it that easy?

It’s back to this remarkable world of technology, and the centralization of servers and tech support that we receive in government. I experienced this as mayor, but I was dumbfounded when I became lieutenant governor. I mean, I had to fight, as I noted in the book, and we ultimately broke the rules to go to the cloud in my office. We were the only agency to do that. They are still arguing against that. We saw at GSA, for example, saving tens of millions of dollars using cloud-based email services, yet states like California are still arguing against that, and so you have all of these disconnected legacy systems, and one should not underestimate the labyrinth and the confusion even for folks who want to adopt a more principled technological approach to problem solving. We don’t have WiFi in the state Capitol for Chrissake (excuse my language!) but it’s stunning to me. They won’t do it because of security or something. You can’t make this up.

Meanwhile, we have the persuasion industry, and the lobbyists come in and rewrite laws, and that’s done in complete dark and secrecy, and apparently that’s okay. But opening our systems to real people is somehow a security risk.

I mean this: I’m losing my patience with government as we know it. I’m a huge advocate for government – that’s why I want to change it. I don’t want to give up on it. And we just have to change our ways. Everyone knows this. And you know that Don Tapscott has done a remarkable job advancing these principles. But the industrial age has run out of steam.

This idea that media, in hindsight it’s so obvious what happened, but nobody really saw that coming as it pertains to newspapers and bloggers and publishers. Same with the music industry, and the financial services industry. We’re approaching the same course in government. We’d better wake up to it, and soon, very soon, because the world is changing at a rate and speed in a way I couldn’t have imagined three years ago, let alone 13 years ago.

Shifting gears a bit, as lieutenant governor, you sit on the board of regents for the University of California, right? Do you have any ideas you can throw out about how we can change education through technology? Are we all going to be learning through the Khan Academy?

Or the legions that have been inspired by Sal’s work. It’s back to this notion of hybrid. You know, the debates we’ve been having in education reform: Talk about stale. They tend to be around stale ideological terms around getting rid of seniority and tenure for teachers unions, as if somehow that is a significant reform.

What Sal has done, and a growing number of people, is so much more profound and important, and that is changing the way we educate, not a mass education model. Not a standardized model, but the idea of individualized learning, blended learning, flipping the classroom, so that we’re having a Socratic debate, and we’re engaged in a mentorship and coaching relationship with our students, not professorial broadcast relationship, having people being taught with different age cohorts in the same room, as we engage with people in real life, not just on the date of manufacture, the date of our birth, not having any rows of desks as we did 150 years ago as we moved from a feudal society to an industrialized society, not having single subject conversations.

This is what Sal has presented, and technology has played a profound role in changing the way we educate, and not just K-12, but you’re seeing with Sebastian Thrun, and the remarkable work he was doing with people online with artificial intelligence at Stanford now and taking that to Udacity and Kucera doing the same thing.

These are the next generation of interactive online education as opposed to broadcast online education for profit, which I don’t subscribe to. I just think this is the most exciting moment. Four or five years ago, I said: I was really giving up on it. I was really, substantively pessimistic about education in this country. Now I’m rolling with absolute optimism because of the capacity of technology to dramatically shift the results, and our focus.

Are you in a position to make any recommendations to the University to make any changes or anything like that?

Well, Governor Brown to his credit as well has been very aggressive. We finally had, after years of talking about this, after substantive discussions last month at the UC and CSU systems, we’re engaging in the first partnership with San Jose State with Udacity for accredited courses. We’re having real conversations about changing the way we deliver the model of education we have today in a more cost effective manner, but more importantly, and more granular manner in terms of meeting people where they are in terms of how they learn as opposed to the older model of how we think they learn.

So yes, we’re leaning in aggressively, and we want to lead the nation, UC and CSU on these principles, but we want to do it right, and thoughtfully.

Do you have a favorite civic app?

[Laughs.] It’s funny, as I’m deep into these app stores, I don’t know that I have a favorite. I love the quirkiness of some of them. One of the first apps when I was mayor was the idea of an Ecofinder, to find recycling centers. The reason I loved that was that when I was mayor, I required composting in the city of San Francisco, as you know, we banned plastic bags, we banned plastic water bottles, and we had the highest recycling rates in America. I was passionate about this.

And then near the end of my term we started this open data initiative, and they twinned my passion there with technology, and I thought: What a brilliant app! Ecofinder. Most are crime, and transit and health, and here it was, for me so useful, and so principled in terms of my own values, so that’s one.

Last question: What do [George] Clooney and Warren Beatty know about civic apps?

[Laughs.] It was so much fun meeting the two of them, because it was all about privacy, and the notion that we live in a glass neighborhood, or we all live in a fishbowl. I read a quote from Clooney, and I put it in there, where he said he would no sooner have a Facebook page than a colonoscopy or something.

I thought that wonderful, and so I reached out to him. He has no privacy, poor guy, paparazzi everywhere he goes. Same with Beatty. Warren’s famously not wanting to engage in interviews like this, etc, an wanting to be more private after living the exposed life that he’s lived. I just thought it interesting to connect with people like that, not just futurists and technologists, not just the Stewart Brands, and the Sergey Brins, and Sheryl Sandbergs and President Clinton, but folks who are struggling with the issue of privacy in a different way.

I have to ask you about that, though, as someone who’s written about technology and digital privacy for a long time: It’s a bit worrying to hear from a public official that we don’t have any privacy. That kind of obliterates the whole point of being empowered by networks and technology.

I’ve struggled with coming to grips with this whole idea of privacy in the world we’re living in. I was talking to Don Tapscott about this. I think Don said it brilliantly when he said: "We must twin transparency and privacy together." His argument was: We don’t even know when we’re giving up our privacy. We download an app, and we don’t even know what we’ve given up in terms of our privacy, and so it’s not informed. There’s a lack of transparency.

It's a principle I absolutely subscribe to. I’m not arguing against the notion of privacy, quite the contrary. I am arguing that we have to recognize that privacy is now the new currency. You give it up to get something in return: you get the latest customized service, and some people are willing to do that. Older folks like me may be willing to pay a little, but it’s not transparency and informed consent.