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Books and Culture

Pete Peterson
Internet Republic
Can digital technology spark more active citizenship?
15 May 2013

Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, by Gavin Newsom with Lisa Dickey (Penguin Press, 272 pp., $25.95)

At its best, Citizenville, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s current bestseller with Lisa Dickey, gives a vivid description of the technological shift occurring in society and government. The Internet, Newsom shows, has made citizen organizing and association easier and cheaper than ever, expanding on an argument made by New York University professor Clay Shirky in his book, Here Comes Everybody. What happens when these citizens come together can be good (millions of dollars donated to schools through the website DonorsChoose.org) or bad (enabling communication between international terrorist cells)—but it’s unquestionably happening.

Those 30 and under have eagerly embraced technology for civic purposes. This isn’t surprising, as the young tend to be the least troubled by privacy issues. “They’ve grown up in a world where they’ve made trade-offs every day,” Newsom writes, “setting up their browsers to accept cookies, submitting addresses and credit-card numbers online, spending their entire adult lives on Facebook posting photos and intimate details of their lives.”

Increased comfort with personal openness has intersected with outrageous government scandals in places like Bell, California to generate pressure for governments to make available their data on budgets, public safety, and myriad other concerns. In the pre-Internet days, governments could get away with providing information only when asked, in writing, but now, particularly with the rise of data-visualization software, almost anyone can gain immediate access to, say, city budget documents in easy-to-understand digital formats. In a hopeful sign for the future, the City of Bell recently earned an “A-” from the Sunlight Foundation for its new website, which provides live streaming of council meetings and access to public documents while also letting citizens pay parking tickets online.

The call for openness has also sparked the use of competitions and games to encourage innovative policymaking and participation. Examples abound, including President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program for state education, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “Mayor’s Challenge” for cities, the Knight Foundation’s “News Challenge” for media providers, and city-based “hackathons.” Governments or nonprofit organizations have used these competitions to invite citizen participation in solving policy problems. Some of the results have been remarkable. The authors argue that government-sponsored competitions have yielded everything from handheld applications that help San Diegans locate the next cross-town bus to better designs for combat vehicles. Newsom quotes Aneesh Chopra, who oversaw the Defense Department contest as President Obama’s first chief technology officer, praising Victor Garcia’s design for the new Pentagon vehicle: “There are hidden pockets of innovation throughout this country. There are Victor Garcias in every neighborhood. This is what open government is all about.” On a personal note, I have seen government innovation through my institute’s annual Public Engagement Grant Program. Even cash awards as small as $2,500 have unlocked effective collaborative efforts between governments and citizens.

Citizenville moves to shakier ground when Newsom proposes to use online games to engage citizens in areas such as planning decisions and service delivery. As Newsom states, “We have to meet the people where they are. And where they are right now is playing games and spending time on social-networking sites.” He cites research from the Kaiser Family Foundation finding that “kids between the ages of eight and eighteen spend 53 hours a week on entertainment media.” The book’s folksy title is derived from the immensely popular online social network game, FarmVille, in which competitors pay real money to obtain simulated money, which is then used to purchase virtual animals and equipment. The game’s maker, Zynga, is now a $1 billion company. Newsom theorizes that this game-based approach could be put into real-life practice: “In Citizenville, people would spend money on actual improvements in the player’s neighborhood—say, an hour of professional landscaping or fresh paint to cover up graffiti. In both FarmVille and Citizenville, players have the enjoyment of the game. But in Citzenville, instead of taking pride in a virtual world, players would be making a difference in their own neighborhoods.” Newsom gushes: “I don’t know about you, but I think as long as it looked and felt like these other games, Citizenville would be a huge hit.”

Aside from the small town of Manor, Texas, though, few other governments seem to have tried anything like this. Bureaucracies are improving their responsiveness to some degree, but they aren’t built, for the most part, to engage the public outside the voting booth. And as Newsom concedes but spends little time discussing, “technology is not the government’s core competency. In government service, there tend to be a few people who are empowered and entrusted with an extraordinary amount of influence based on seniority.” Also missing from Newsom’s discussion is how the incentive structure—financial and cultural—in the private tech sector is vastly different from that in the public sector. In the private sector, trial and error is essential to technological advancement, but government workers have no reason to innovate when failure means risking a nice pension.

Hope for a more active citizenship is most realistic at the local and state levels. As I wrote last year, lost in all the outrage about the missing $54 million at the California Department of Parks and Recreation was an amazing feat of government-enabled civic engagement. Responding to the governor’s decision to close 70 of the 278 state parks, then-Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin County) wrote AB 42—legislation that cut the red tape between civic organizations, local governments, and the parks on the chopping block, permitting an easier transition to non-state/civic sector ownership and maintenance. Through AB 42, almost every one of the condemned parks secured a local relationship, enabling it to remain open, at least in the short term.

Throughout California and around the country, cash-strapped governments are pulling back from long-held service commitments, opening the door for citizens to exert what Tocqueville famously called Americans’ “self-interest properly understood.” Of course, technology can facilitate these opportunities—but not without public-sector officials who see governments as more than “service providers” and citizens who regard themselves as more than “customers.”

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