Lt. Gov. Newsom talks about his new book, 'Citizenville'
“Hi, I’m Gavin,” said the tall, slender man with swept-back hair (is that a spray of gray?) in the expertly tailored suit, flashing a megawatt smile and wearing a cologne of confidence.
Didn’t we see this guy on the cover of GQ magazine?
Nope, that guy must have been a lookalike.
This guy is Gavin Newsom, Irish-Catholic liberal Democratic lieutenant governor of California (who will likely run for governor sometime in the future). He’s also a businessman, wine merchant, restaurateur, hotelier, former TV talk-show host, former two-term mayor of San Francisco, frequent combatant with Gov. Jerry Brown, husband of documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel, and father of two with a third due in July.
Now he’s an author.
Newsom’s book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” is set for release Feb. 7 (Penguin, $25.95, 272 pages, co-written with Lisa Dickey; www.citizenville.com).
That’s also the date he’ll launch a national book tour, stopping to chat with talk-show hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, Piers Morgan and Bill Maher, and to field a few shots on “Meet the Press” and “Morning Joe.”
The book is Newsom’s proposal for how the tech-savvy private sector can help change what he views as stubbornly technophobic local, state and federal governments and “transform democracy” to make it more responsive to the citizenry. In hands-on terms, we, the people, can get things done build more parks, fund art by coming together over a wide array of “digital tools,” with an emphasis on social networking.
In Newsom’s vision, government must elevate itself to the 2.0 level where information is “accessible anywhere, any time on any device,” he writes. The current form of government is more like a vending machine: Money goes in, services come out. If the machine doesn’t work, you shake it.
“We need to change that outdated dynamic between the government and the citizens,” Newsom said, perched on the edge of a massive desk in his office .
“We want to digitize the town square with a whole new construct of participatory citizenship. But I tried to be reflective in the book about how difficult that would be.”
Plugged in and well-connected
Once past the foyer of Room 1114 in the Capitol, the lieutenant governor’s quarters open into a high-ceilinged warren of offices and conference rooms, with glass-brick walls and floors covered in royal-blue carpeting.
In Newsom’s wood-paneled inner sanctum, bottles of red wines were clustered on a small credenza (he co-owns three wineries in the Napa Valley PlumpJack, Cade and the newly opened Odette Estate) near the heavy wood furniture he brought with him from San Francisco City Hall, along with three 19th century oil paintings of landscapes and two bronze sculptures of mountain lions. The art is on loan from the de Young Museum archive.
“The only thing we inherited (in the office) is this ridiculously dysfunctional desk,” Newsom said. On it were his iPhone and iPad, with an iPod charging in a nearby port.
The lieutenant governor, 45, is well-connected in many ways. On the digital front, more than 1 million people follow him on Twitter and his Facebook friends number 108,000. He’s active on Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr. In 2010, the social-media aggregating and monitoring company Samepoint named him “Most Social Mayor in America.”
He might also be the most telegenic. A fifth-generation San Franciscan, Newsom joked and chatted as a photographer took pictures, recalling growing up in the Marina District and fishing in the Palace of Fine Arts reflecting pool.
As the camera clicked, Newsom remarked, “I can’t stand to look at pictures of myself.” Isn’t that ironic, given his role as host of cable’s “Gavin Newsom Show,” which recently went dark?
“Yeah, but you’re assuming I watched it,” he said.
Newsom’s contract with Current TV expires Thursday, a timely coincidence given that the network was purchased Jan. 3 by Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab news network, and dropped by Time Warner Cable.
As a last hurrah, he interviewed Willie Mays, whom he idolizes. “It was like hanging out with DiMaggio or Ruth,” he said.
Did he get an autograph?
“I got everything; it was embarrassing. But if this building was on fire, I would grab that football over there first,” he said, pointing to a glass-and- wood cabinet.
Written on the ball in sprawling script: “To the best mayor San Francisco has had. You are the man, Gavin.” It’s signed, “Joe Montana.”
Photo shoot over; time to talk about “Citizenville.”
While Newsom is hardly the first to suggest that technology could help make government more efficient and accessible, he’s certainly making a mark with his enthusiasm, pushing the core concept with the passion of a veteran salesman.
For the next hour, the animated and glib Newsom spoke with the zeal of an evangelist, emphasizing that a brave new digital world is upon us and that government needs to innovate to connect with the people. The same terms kept coming up as key requirements to accomplish that tall order: collaboration, openness, engagement, participation, transparency and accountability.
For his book, Newsom interviewed dozens of “technovators,” industry leaders whose contributions to the digital age have been foundation-forming. People such as Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman, new-media doyenne Arianna Huffington, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, and Stewart Brand, founder of the Hackers Conference series.
The book offers examples of how city governments and private companies have used digital technology in imaginative ways to create or propose programs for the betterment of society. For example, scan a QR code at a construction site for updates on completion dates, or check a citywide Tumblr view for upcoming events in your city.
“Citizenville” is also the title for a “game” Newsom proposes in the book, modeled on “FarmVille.”
Newsom’s imagined version would be a place where “players would take real responsibility for civic progress,” he writes. “A place where the solutions to government failures and problems are in their own hands.”
Instead of raising imaginary crops as in “FarmVille,” gamers’ play would help fund civic projects in their communities, such as road repair.
Of course, a “Citizenville” app is in the works.
While one could argue that government shouldn’t be about fun and games, Newsom sees it differently.
“The gameification of the world is extraordinary, and the whole point of the book is to meet people where they are,” he said. “My argument is that people shouldn’t necessarily bypass government which is happening as they go peer-to-peer but that government needs to become a platform for solving problems.”
On the subject of games, does Newsom have any on his iPhone?
“Are you kidding?” he said. “I not only have ‘Angry Birds,’ I’ve got the HD version of ‘Angry Birds Rio,’ thanks to my daughter.
“Let me show you something,” he said, scrolling through his iPhone. “My daughter, who is 3 1/2, got on my iPad the night before last and went on a shopping spree. Yesterday I got an email receipt from Apple for $59.99.”
“(Consider) a whole generation of digital natives like her,” he said. “You can’t educate them like we were educated. You can’t provide government services that would be acceptable to them, as they were to us. There’s a new digital divide between government and the private sector, one we need to close.”
But what about the existing digital divide? What happens to people who aren’t versed in the e-world, the “digital immigrants” still learning the language of technology, or those who ignore it altogether, or those who have no access to it because of economic barriers? Wouldn’t they be excluded?
“I’m looking for an ‘and,’ not an ‘or,’ not a utopia at the exclusion of the world we live in or a shift overnight from one construct to another,” he replied. “It’s more a call for the recognition of the new contours of fundamental changes we’re already experiencing, and the millennial generation of digital natives.”
One requirement for Newsom’s scenario is that government share mor
e data with the citizenry. Wouldn’t that be risky?
“It would be anathema to so many bureaucrats and elected officials, yes,” he said. “Personnel and national security data is a point of real concern. But crime data, which allows folks to understand their neighborhoods, is not. So (in this case the idea would be) cross-pollinating crime data as it relates to real estate transactions. You could use that.”
If government data were wide open, Newsom said, “the developers in the communities will be able to mash that up and re-imagine and redesign and collaborate in ways that will mesmerize us in terms of their insights and solutions to problems.”
Antidote to ‘tribalism’
While Newsom’s big-picture ideas are intriguing, the requirements for implementing them often seem idealistic. Yes, the digital world is here, and yes, government needs to become a conduit that connects the citizenry to the new reality. Newsom is showing what could be done in the best of worlds, one that would rely on the best of human nature.
Look, he said, leaning forward to make the point. The nation is becoming “more isolated and tribal, and I’m arguing for an antidote to that. The tools of technology can enhance our understanding of one another and our respect for the human condition, as opposed to this same tired, stale political gamesmanship.”
Newsom paused for a moment, then leaned back in his chair and said, “I’m just trying to do something different around here.”
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