This week, Weekend Reader brings you Citizenville, by California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom. Citizenville proposes ways in which Americans can take matters into their own hands and have a direct role in government through the use of social media and technological innovations. Newsom’s ideas for innovation are modestly taking place across the country, but expanding these ideas has the potential to completely transform our government by modernizing how dialogue and procedures between government and citizens occur.
This book started with a question. Over the past several years, I’ve found myself wondering: Why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other — through Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, text messaging — but less engaged with their government?
Millions of Americans can find hours every day to tweet, text, blog, post reviews, and play games with each other on social networking sites. Yet in 2011, when our second largest city, Los Angeles, held an election on crucial initiatives dealing with education and the environment, only 12 percent of registered voters found time to cast a ballot. And the low turnout was so unremarkable, so par for the course, that hardly anyone even noticed or commented on it.
Where was the disconnect coming from? And what could we do to fix it?
Then I realized something else. It wasn’t just that people weren’t engaging with their government. Elected officials weren’t bothering to engage with the people, either — that is, of course, until campaign time. I don’t know about you, but I never feel so needed and loved as during the months leading up to an election, when I’m suddenly bombarded with emails, calls, and pleas for donations. I’m an elected official myself and find it annoying, so I can only imagine that everyone else finds it even more so.
Politicians love to use social media— but only for getting people involved in campaigns or getting into their wallets. We build fancy websites; we ramp up our tweeting and texting and engaging and mashing up; we host online town halls. And then, once we get elected, we just shut all that off and go away — until the next campaign season rolls around. No wonder people feel disconnected.
Campaigns — great campaigns — become movements. They create enthusiasm and buy-in and connection. JFK with his “We can do better,” Reagan with “Morning in America,” Obama with “Yes we can” . . . A great campaign is a spirited, almost spiritual thing. It makes you want to do more. But nowadays, all that disappears the minute the election is over. During the campaign, we convince people to open themselves up — they let themselves hope, they let themselves believe, they let their guard down. And then we get into office and we hold a couple of Twitter town halls where we answer questions for one hour in 140-character responses. “Well, John, I appreciate your question.” That’s not civic engagement. It’s merely cosmetic.
Politicians often say, “This is what the American people want,” but the truth is, most of them have no idea what people want. Average citizens have very few ways to make their voices heard in government, and the ones they do have are archaic: calling their representatives, sending a letter or email, and voting every once in a while. What “the American people” want is most often determined by random polls, which usually means the opinions of people who happen to answer their landline phones, as cellphone polling is still the exception rather than the rule.
Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge — of 1973. In the private sector and in our personal lives, absolutely everything has changed over the last decade. In government very little has. For the first time in history, anyone with a smartphone can have all the world’s information literally in the palm of his or her hand. People have embraced that blessing with passion, desire, and innovation; creating apps, games, tools, and websites that improve their daily lives. But government has held it at arm’s length while our problems have gotten worse.
So how do we fix this problem? How can we bridge this gap between technology and government?
To find out, I decided to talk to people at the core of the issue: the technologists, politicians, thinkers, and innovators whose work is changing not only the way we communicate, but also the way we live.
Over the last eighteen months, I’ve interviewed dozens of people all over the United States — people like Yelp cofounder Jeremy Stoppelman, former president Bill Clinton, new-media mogul Arianna Huffington, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, and the legendary innovator Stewart Brand, among many others.
I asked all of them how we can use the amazing new tools of technology to get people excited about and engaged in government again and what they saw as the future of citizen participation in this hyperconnected age. Their answers — often surprising and always enlightening — form the backbone of this book.
Each of these people brought something unique to the table, but taken as a whole, their thoughts added up to one overarching message: The revolution is happening now, and the world is changing too quickly for government to respond with tiny, incremental changes. It is time to radically rethink the relationship between citizens and government.
Excerpted from Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government by Gavin Newsom with Lisa Dickey. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Gavin Newsom.