I’ve written a couple of times about Carl Skelton’s Betaville software for citizen engagement in urban planning and design, so my eye caught the title of a book that came out a few months ago – “Citizenville: How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by current California Lt. Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. (Alas, Citizenville is a name based on the popular game, FarmVille, not Betaville.)
When the book came out, there was a little bit of publicity and reviews in a few newspapers. Perhaps the largest audience Newsom had was an interview on the Colbert Report, which unfortunately was fairly cynical in tone. Many people, even those who are interested in better government, haven’t read it.
Let’s first get the criticisms out of the way. Some critics have dismissed Newsom as a lightweight and clearly he does not write in an academic style. It’s more journalistic, even breezy. (Many people might consider that a plus.).
The tone in places is somewhat clichéd and sometimes annoying to those of us who are much deeper into the role of the Internet in government. For example, the implication that the private sector is almost always better than the public sector is too broad a view to be worth much as a guiding principle.
Some of it is too much about him. And not all of it is correct or well thought through. But then that would also be true of authors with more prestigious academic credentials.
Ok, now to the more important positive side. The book is a reasonably good compendium of the various ways that the Internet is being used in the public sector. It should be read.
For me, the most significant thing about the book is that an incumbent, leading politician wrote it. In a way, that’s also why the book is useful to other public leaders. Newsom shares his experiences – both good and bad – and outlines at least some of the minefield facing other elected officials who wish to use digital technologies in public service.
In addition to writing a book that can help to educate public leaders, Newsom, along with Code for America, has created the Citizenville Challenge (http://citizenville.com/challenge/) that has enlisted cities such as Philadelphia and Austin.
Over the last several years, I’ve seen more elected officials who understand the role of technology in better citizen engagement and better public sector outcomes. My own experience has led me to realize that technologists, in and out of government, can really only succeed when the top elected official leads the way. Ultimately, that’s why this book is important.
In a recent review, Pete Peterson summarizes this key to success:
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.”
© 2013 Norman Jacknis