Editor’s Note: California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom visited the National Constitution Center on Wednesday to discuss his newly released book, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government—a guide for how ordinary citizens can use technology and social media to transform American democracy.
Watch a video replay of the event below:
The following op-ed was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 10, 2013.
I never feel so needed and loved as during the months leading up to an election: the constant e-mails, phone calls, and an overflowing mailbox. That’s when politicians discover social media and engaging with citizens – for donations and help with campaigns.
The minute the election is over, all that disappears, and we’re back to government as usual. Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge – of 1973. While most areas of our lives benefit from having all the world’s information on our smartphones, government remains stubbornly behind.
Meanwhile, immediate action is needed if we’re to address the ongoing crises of gun violence, climate change, and the partisan gridlock in Washington. (When voters seem to have a more favorable view of traffic jams, root canals, and used-car salesmen than Congress, you know it’s dire.)
The fact is, the world is changing too quickly for government to respond with tiny, incremental changes. It is time to radically rethink the relationship between citizens and government.
Open-source software pioneer Tim O’Reilly has the perfect analogy for government. He points out that we think of government as a vending machine: You put money in, services come out. And when something goes wrong, you shake the vending machine out of frustration – to little effect.
We need to move beyond the vending-machine model to a government that’s more like cloud computing. With the cloud, information is stored remotely but is readily accessible anywhere for collaboration and connection.
This is how our 21st-century government must operate: empowering people to move away from the top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical system that’s choking our democracy today.
We’re so used to the flow of information being one way – from government to people, from elites to the middle class, from professor to student, from media to consumers – it’s almost impossible for people to conceive of its being any other way. But technology has opened up a two-way stream, and it’s here to stay.
I learned a valuable lesson about this two-way stream in 2005 during my first term as mayor of San Francisco. I heard about handheld devices that allowed people to quietly vote on their priorities rather than having to travel to city meetings and strive to argue the loudest for their positions.
Instead of our usual city budgeting process of contentious town-hall meetings where special interests packed the room, we held three town-hall meetings with these devices. The result was a more representative, less special-interests-heavy budget that we called the People’s Budget.
Technology is about more than making government websites better. These tools enable us to engage the public more directly and bypass the louder outliers – and with that we get more participation and a wave of positive public interaction.
As we tackle the enormous task of pushing government into the new millennium, there are some principles we must keep at the forefront of every effort. First and foremost is a commitment to absolute transparency. We must open up our vast stores of data, make them available to ordinary people, and make sure they are standardized and easy to use.
We must encourage people to use that information to create useful apps, devices, and tools. It’s only through crowd-sourcing, feedback loops, and collective wisdom that we can harness the amazing power of the technological revolution. Government can’t do it alone.
It’s essential that we engage people on their own terms. In a world where games, social networking, and 140-character updates are what capture people’s attention, we need to integrate those things into government communication.
As difficult as it can be for us officials to accept, we need to allow people to bypass government. New technology makes it possible for citizens to take matters in their own hands, and we have to accept that top-down hierarchy is no longer working.
Last, we must inject a more innovative, entrepreneurial mind-set into government. When teenagers in dorm rooms create world-changing companies, we can’t have a government that relies on bureaucracy and maintaining the status quo. Thanks to technology, this transition to a more entrepreneurial government will be easier than at any other time in history.
All of this is how we can reconnect Americans to their government. With future generations depending on us to fight climate change and with the epidemic of gun violence seeping into even our elementary schools, the time to start fixing this disconnect is now.