"Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge -- of 1973," Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current Lt. Governor of California, writes in his new book, "Citizenville."
"For the first time in history," Newsom continues, "anyone with a smartphone can have all the world’s information literally in the palm of his or her hand. People have embraced that blessing with passion, desire, and innovation, creating apps, games, tools, and Web sites that improve their daily lives. But government has held it at arm’s length while our problems have gotten worse."
In his book, Newsome points to a critical gap between the stewardship of our democracy by the citizens of our nation and the top-down management of the citizenry by a government designed, in theory, to be comprised of, and in the service to, the people of this nation. Voting for candidates or policies now draws abysmal numbers... while voting for "American Idol" contestants excites tremendous interest.
It’s not simply a matter of the trivial overtaking the practical. Online activity is increasingly part of how we live our lives, as well as escape from them. The connectivity of the online world allows massively multiplayer games to thrive and flourish across cities, states, even continents; what "digital immigrants" like Newsom himself and other elected officials find challenging, or strange, or trifling, constitutes the connective tissue of the body politic for "digital natives" like Newsom’s own young daughter, whom he observed, at an age of less than one year, clutching his phone.
Newsom related that anecdote while addressing an audience at Microsoft in Seattle this week. "I was convinced -- I am Catholic, and this was my conviction -- that she was The One. She was the Prodigy!" But Newsom’s excitement was dampened when, upon taking his daughter to "pre-preschool" he noted that "every single damn kid" in his daughter’s crèche was exhibiting similar tech-savvy behavior.
It was the idea that government can, and ought to, embrace an ethic that allows for "two-way engagement" rather than "the top-down, hierarchical ’broadcast’ model, where government is doing things to you and not with you" that Newsom was thinking of when he wrote "Citizenville." The title, he said, came from the online game "Farmville," in which players spend hours tending to virtual crops and livestock and, when the need arises, turn to their fellow players to help out with their online chores.
It may seem counter-intuitive to see a politician promoting the idea of government that works with you in partnership, rather than working you over from a position of power -- particularly when it’s the same official who was lambasted by the right for declaring that marriage equality had come to California "whether you like it or not!" (Those words, that video clip! The memory still sends a shudder through marriage equality advocates.) But Newsom has vital and urgent questions for us, and he also has a formula for truly improving things. How well his model might work in practice, rather than theory or small-scale application, is unclear.
Why can’t America’s people bring that same level of interest, energy, ownership, and cooperation to their own government? Part of the problem is that government is so stuck in past models of thinking -- models that business leaders, innovators, artists, and others who live on the leading edge have increasingly abandoned.
Government in its current form is unwieldy, slow, and wasteful; Newsom related his own experience as San Francisco’s mayor, talking about a program for the homeless that was so fraught with fraud and abuse that it amounted to a financial boondoggle. Worse, the way the program was run led to severe social problems. One example: Right around the first and fifteenth of each month, when the city’s homeless (not to mention the "homeless" from other cities, hucksters who only came into San Francisco to collect the money) got their four-hundred-odd dollar checks from the city, the city’s liquor stores did a booming business, the hospitals filled with drunks, and people with life threatening health issues were "diverted" away from local hospitals to hospitals farther afield.
"I’m a good Democrat," Newsom said. "I thought it was obvious how to fix any problem: Spend more money on it." Once he realized what was going on with the city’s homeless benefit, Newsom worked to change things up. The city began to provide services and housing, rather than a check. The hucksters stayed home; the city’s hospitals stopped being flooded with inebriates. Twelve thousand needy people found their way to housing.
Similar shifts in thinking are necessary, Newsom said, to address our current problems and to improve out government. The world-transforming power of the Internet -- not just the technology itself, but the way it has been enthusiastically and almost universally embraced -- looks to be one promising direction for such a shift.
The potential for crowd-sourcing solutions to civic problems is enormous. Newsom described for his listeners the typical process for getting anything done: Committees study the issue, recommendations are made, funding is allotted for further study, and years go by. In some of the examples Newsom gave, the problem was exacerbated by contractors who play the system for huge sums of money, all to very little or no effective result.
By engaging the city’s technologically literate in the process, however, Newsom saw such problems literally evaporate. In one instance, citizens with the skills to create apps relevant to a recycling effort had online resources ready to go "within hours," Newsom said -- a far cry from "the years, if not decades" that otherwise might have gone into governmentally administered projects, at a cost of untold millions.
The idea of willing, well-intentioned citizens stepping up in the digital world to do the work that fewer and fewer people are willing to do in the physical world is attractive, but problematic. True, the avenues for action in the physical world relay on slower methods; those avenues have long been effectively coopted by the powerful, who have made an art of deflecting the rage and the will of the people en masse. Also, it’s easy to get discouraged when you can’t sense the might or momentum of numbers, as can happen in the offline world.