California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom asks an interesting question at the beginning of his book Citizenville: “Why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other – through Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, text messaging – but less engaged with their government? Newsom’s goal with his book is not so much to answer the question but to find ways to engage people with their governments through the use of technology.

He comes up with some positive examples, and some which will take experimentation to see if they will work.

Newsom suggests modeling participation with government after popular participatory web activities like Angry Birds and Farmville (from which the book took its name). He says offering rewards or simple recognition for good deeds that help the community would play to the sensibilities of those familiar with the online world and popular sites like Farmville.

Of course, Newsom recognizes some of the obstacles facing his ideas to change the culture of government through the use of technology. Those obstacles are what he calls the “legacy” factions – those who like things the way they are because they have mastered the current system. Think public labor unions and big business lobbyists.

For example, he suggested someone landscaping a median as a public benefit for the community, which would give the landscaper points toward a goal. However, this suggestion brought to mind an effort not long ago by parents who volunteered to spruce up their children’s local school only to be stopped by the school workers who were assigned to such things and objected to the volunteer help.

I saw a lot of that kind of thinking with Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review. The compilers of the reports used the knowledge of many state workers on how to fix problems – who knew better than them – but the bureaucratic institutions resisted change and the governor gave up too quickly on his plan to blow up the boxes.

Newsom evokes the memory of a couple of Democratic political legends in the way he phrases his arguments.

In the introduction to the book, when the Lt. Governor encourages people to look to solve their own problems rather than having government do things for them, I hear the iconic JFK refrain: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

Likewise, when he argues, “Government doesn’t have to create everything; it just has to let others create.”—I recall a quote from Mario Cuomo that I have cited in columns: “It is not government’s obligation to provide services, but to see that they’re provided.”

One issue Newsom raises about the digital age that troubles me is the idea that the “era of privacy” is over. He offers examples of how some delicate negotiations dealing with choices government must make could be difficult with total transparency.

If the “era of privacy” is over that is a direct conflict with the California Constitution’s first article, which guarantees a right to privacy. How does that guarantee come into play in this digital age?

One last thought– Newsom discusses the debate when he was San Francisco mayor whether access to the transportation in the city should be free. He concludes that if people have no investment in something, they treat the benefit as a throwaway. That is correct. The same is true with other services the state often offers for free. I am aware of health care offices that service MediCal patients. In many cases they have to double and triple-book patients because often patients don’t bother to show because they see a free service as having lesser value.

Newsom’s observation that government today wants to manage problems instead of solve problems hits the mark. Technology may be able to help if the technology can somehow work around the legacy interests.


For readers of my columns, I am taking a break for a while. I will be back in May when we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Fox and Hounds Daily.