On February 18, 2021, ELGL members will discuss “Citizenville” by California Governor Gavin Newsom for the ELGL Book Club. We gave away six signed copies of the book to our members and asked them to write reflections on the book. Here’s the reflection post by Ed Dzitko.
A few years ago, a co-worker asked what I thought about a new social media tool that allowed you to “pin” things to a wall. Maybe we can use that in training somehow, she said. They say it’s going to be bigger than Facebook.
That was about four years after Pinterest had debuted, and it had indeed grown fast. The problem for me was that we were already trying to get a training community up and running on Facebook and on Twitter, and the time it was taking to grow those networks didn’t support trying another tool.
Many things have come and gone in the past 10 years, like alternative social networks such as Google Buzz, Google+, Path, and Secret, and a personal favorite, SpringPad, what I considered a much better online version of OneNote or Evernote. That’s the way it goes in the tech field. And trying to play catch up is a losing battle. Your idea has to be ridiculously good to gain any traction.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Gaven Newsom’s book, “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” there were a couple of things I didn’t like. For one, technology is changing so fast (a point Newsom makes in the book) that books written about it quickly become outdated (as exhibited by references to the “cloud” just beginning; we’re all with that is now). For another, the number of tools discussed was a bit mind-numbing, but also more evidence of how a book on technology can become “old,” perhaps before it’s time.
Just as in the case with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and many others that have debuted since 2009, there simply are too many things to try to use, to invest the staff time and budget dollars in to see if there is something magic about one or more platforms. When people are so entrenched in existing networks, they are not going to move unless the change is earth-shattering, and you can show them that it is.
Those things aside, as an employee of a technology company selling software that collects a slew of valuable data, I’m a huge believer in the facts that 1) technology will continually change our lives, and 2) that our data is of critical importance for making management and performance decisions.
From each of those standpoints, Newsom’s book is a must-read. Every government organization needs to be exploring ways to use technology like never before, a lesson that, if it isn’t obvious after reading the book, should be easily learned from the recent pandemic, the need for many of us to work from home, and the 2020 election cycle. Officials also need to find ways to become as transparent as possible by sharing the data that exists with citizens, tech companies, and independent developers.
There is so much worthy of discussion in “Citizenville,” that I think you might be best served if I further my thoughts based on the various roles I perform every week.
- As a citizen: Early on, Newsom asked: “Why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other — through Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and text messaging — but less engaged with their government? (Kindle location 59) There’s a simple answer to that question. Party loyalty has become everything. We’ve seen it to an incredible degree in the 2000s. Simply doing what’s right, for the greater good, in the name of common decency, is trumped by a party blindness that has made government trust a problem, as Newsom acknowledges. We see over and over that nothing gets done and that government, especially at the federal level, wastes incredible time and energy doing and undoing things. No one talks to get together.
“…[C]ommunication between parties, essential to functioning democracy, has all but stopped. (p.12 ) The result? “Our government has a credibility problem. It’s not trustworthy. Politicians don’t always do what they say and they tend to fall back on scare tactics, political positioning, and posturing.” (p.26) That’s true at the federal level, and even in some state legislatures. The only way any good change is going to happen is if it starts at the local level, where there is often less party-above-all-else leadership, by citizens pushing a new way of doing things, and driving those new changes upward.
- As a software trainer: In the past 15 years, traveling to locations all over the country to train users in the use of the QAlert citizen request management system for their 311 initiatives, I’ve heard countless stories about why things can’t be done, arguments about whether certain things can be initiated through red tape, and fear of change with having to do a job differently. Newsom writes that “…the very nature of government throws another wrench into the works. Because of the vast network of rules, regulations, and laws that apply to virtually everything in government service, people aren’t sure what they allowed to do…” (p.4) and that “Bureaucracy wants to stop innovation…Bureaucracy–e.g. Government–is slow to adapt at best. At worst, it’s openly hostile to change.”
As I want to shout sometimes in a training session, “Get over it, people.” Change is constant. Adjust and charge forward. After all, in the private sector, if you’re told to do your job differently, you make the necessary changes.
- As a cell phone gamer – I’m coming clean here. Yes, I was an Angry Birds addict. And, yes, I did buy coins in Farmville to enhance my property holdings and plantings. There. I feel much better now. But seriously, Newsom’s claims that gaming works are true. In our QAlert learning sessions, we use a tool popular in schools, called Kahoot. The play provides release, increases retention, and creates a moment that makes QAlert classes memorable. As word gets around, the gaming aspect adds to the anticipation of the class by those attending later sessions. I’m not a huge gaming fan but I understand what it does to motivate people to participate and engage. And, yes, the QAlert kahoots have convinced me of the importance of a fun and rewarding aspect to civic engagement. It can work.
- As a taxpayer – Newsom points out that the data government collects is owned by the people. I have thought about how it can be said that a government employee works for the taxpayer, but I never thought about who “owned” the data. “We paid for that data with our tax dollars. It belongs to the public [us], and we would be able to access and use it,” Newsom writes (p.30). He adds: “…opening up government data is just the right thing to do. We paid for it. We own it. We have a right to it.” (p.38) Take out what might cause a security threat, and “Show Me the Data!” I say.
- As a marketer and consumer – “It’s not enough,” Newsom writes, “to simply pull reams of government data out of filing cabinets. We must do four things with it. We must make sure it is (1) findable, (2) standardized, and (3) trustworthy. Finally, we must (4) make sure there is a narrative to it–a way for people to relate to it and use it.” (p.40)
QAlert allows municipalities to choose what data – charts and graphs – they would like to share on their websites. And there is an add-on product, the QScend MyGov Center, that allows organizations to display all kinds of data from their various software systems. All the MyGov Center charts and graphs can be manipulated by viewers so they can see the data in smaller chunks, better understand what they’re looking at, and figure out how to use it.
But the trend today is to not just dump the data on me and bury me in numbers. As consumers, we expect marketers and corporate spokespeople to tell us stories around that data to help us understand even more. So just don’t show me the charts and graphs, tell me about what you see and how you are making a difference based on the numbers.
One last thing about “Citizenville” — the digital divide essentially doesn’t exist. Or if it does, Newsom is not concerned about it. He seems more driven to lead the horse to water, so to speak. And I was grateful for that because there are more than enough naysayers who will spout off about digital connectivity issues til they are out of breath, attempting to squish any technological advance that will make life for government and citizens easier.
The points that matter – government needs to use technology and the data it has available, to work together with business and innovators, to design an engagement platform that incorporates the best of what we have and the best of what will be, and to drive citizens to the engagement hub – are like the whispered messages in the movie Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come. Just as with additional ways to vote in 2020, people will learn how to access and use technology, and if they can’t by themselves, there will be service organizations who can help them.
Invest in technology smartly, form critical partnerships, be willing to acknowledge that change has to happen, for government cannot continue the way it has, embrace failure to grow and improve, and strive to collaborate for the greater good, and seemingly impossible obstacles will disappear. Those things will bring 19th-century government into the 21st century.
That’s Newsom’s promise of “Citizenville,” and one we should all get behind.
Ed Dzitko is the director of communications and learning services for QScend Technologies, and the creator of QScend Academy. He has been honored professionally by the New England Press Association and the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. Since 2011, Ed has served as a judge for the Web Marketing Association’s website and mobile website awards. He is a bingewatcher, blogger, bookclubber, distance walker, high school umpire, podcast aficionado, and webinerd. Ed enjoys PBS Masterpiece, all things Rutgers, Yankees, and baseball, and being told ahead of time.