On February 18, 2021, ELGL members discussed “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 Alyse Lui.
In his book, Citizenville, Gavin Newsome makes a compelling argument for government to become more synchronous with the rest of our tech-savvy society and invites the public to take part in upgrading outdated government systems. He suggests doing this by increasing government transparency, making data readily available to the public, and encouraging community members to work on local problems. By gamifying aspects of government to make participation more fun, and incentivizing innovation through public contests and financial rewards, governments could see overall cost savings while improving services.
As I sit here, wondering how to make it possible for my department to accept mobile and online payments, I am keenly aware of how our antiquated systems punctuate Newsome’s point. Citizenville was published in 2013. Nearly a decade later, many of the statements Newsome made about social media are noticeably outdated, but his critiques on the state of government remain as applicable today as they were then. Government has yet to embrace technology, and upgrades have been slow, costly, and insufficient.
Many public servants are just as frustrated and impatient as the public for changes to occur, and the “ready, fire, aim” approach is tempting to those of us whose patience has worn thin. The only concern I have is that we haven’t addressed who is accountable for future-proofing the digital systems we might put in place. Newsome only addresses the accountability issue in passing and seems to almost intentionally gloss it over, which I found to be the one element severely lacking in Citizenville.
Newsome holds up companies like Facebook, Tesla, and Amazon as heroes of innovation and modernization, but their unbridled growth and “ready, fire, aim” style of implementation has arguably created as many problems as they have solved, and they are constantly making headlines for ethics concerns and worker exploitation. I am also wary of using contests as a replacement for ongoing R&D funding, as externalizing costs often leads to inequity.
That said, I still feel inspired and excited to see if my city can take a few pages from Newsome’s book and try them out. I would love to see Citizenville 2.0 with a discussion of how we can implement new ideas with systems of accountability in place to mitigate the consequences of a “ready, fire, aim” approach. I think Newsome’s vision of a Citizenville might well be achievable, we just need to be willing to do the hard work of being intentional about how we bring it about.