Digital democracy and reinventing government

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan September 17, 2013
Summary:
"We ain't seen nothing yet. That's why I stick around in this political world." Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, has strong digital government ambitions.

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Gavin Newsom, current Lieutenant Governor of California, is a familiar face at San Francisco-based tech conferences as is perhaps only befitting for the former mayor of the city.

But turning up to press the flesh with Marc Benioff at Dreamforce isn't just a politician edging into the hi-tech limelight.

While politicians the world over crave their 15 minutes on the bleeding edge of modernity, Newsom is one of those who gets the disruptive potential of digital government.

This week Newsom turned up at the Boxworks 13 conference to discuss this worldview, as well as slip in a plug for his new book, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, which examines how government should use social media to be more responsive to citizens.

Newsom talks in terms of how to encourage active not intert citizenship and ignite engagement with government. It's made possible by technological empowerment. He produces an interesting analogy to make his point:

"When you drive over the new Bay Bridge and you look over at the old Bay Bridge, there is not more acute physical example of the world we live in. The old bridge is inflexible, rigid, built from the top down, closed and built to last. The new bridge is flexible, built from the bottom up, open and built to change."

Top down?

The point he makes is that government is still a command down institution. There have been flurries of activity to counter that, but they all too often fall by the wayside.

Newsom cites Barack Obama's use of social and Cloud technologies to build Change.gov, the Salesforce.com based system that was set up before the first Obama administration took office in order to ascertain the public's view of what the then President Elect should do in his first hundred days in office.

Unfortunately the top priority wasn't ending the war in Iraq or funding education, but legalising marijuana.

The President's respone? The same as every politician's would have been:

"He turned off the site for reconstruction. It transitioned to Whitehouse.gov. This isn't an indictment. No-one gets this more than Obama. The bottom up has become top down. Yes we can becomes yes he can. You vote, he decides. So the campaign model of two way conversation hasn't translated into the government model."

Back biting

So the question becomes: can we engage people in paticupatory model of governning that isn't going to bite back? It's a situation illustrated by social media's role in the Arab Spring. Newsom suggests that this is a salutary lesson on crowdsourcing:

"You can't tweet a constitution. This is not necesarily a good govenring model. It's about the crowd being all on top and that makes for challenging transitions. It's no longer about the good guy leading the way; it's now about many leaders.

"So how do you create a sense of commonwealth and community? Technology can do that. It can bring us back to the town square and to real community and connected fate. It's about the African term ubuntu: i am because you are."

"Maybe I'm being Pollyana-ish about all this. I'm not saying technology can solve everything, but it can be a means of powerful collective action."

And something really does need to be done to encourage participation, he adds:

"The US is 138th in the world in terms of voter participation. But people vote every day when it comes to things like America's Got Talent! This is code red!"

Not that the political establishment necessarily helps, admits Newsom.
"Government is all about conformity where one size fits all and it's fast food education. As they say, we don't want to change the players, we want to change the game - and that game does need to change radically.

"Politicians are walking hypocrites. The corruption of the system has existed for decades thanks to the 'persuasion industry'. We take care of them, they take care of us.

"We need to get rid of the political parties. I am a proud Democrat, but I think the two party system in the US has become ossified."

Newsom says basic questions need to be addressed in the shift to digital government:

"How do we bring back sustainable values that built the most dynamic economy in the world. It's that whole notion of regeneration. It's about sustainable not situational values, not short termism."

Despite all this, Newsom retains optimism thanks in part of the convergence of new digital technologies, but also the arrival of a generation of digital natives who simply won't tolerate the status quo, citing the example of his 4 year old daughter's affinity with the iPad:

"She's wired differently. I am confident in this next generation. They're going to have no interest in the 'sage on the stage' in education. She's baked in bits.

"Her generation will demand something radically different and so we'll get something radically different.

"We ain't seen nothing yet. That's why I stick around in this political world."