Photos – July 22
As the din of my alarm forces me to groggily come to terms with consciousness, I hear it. Slowly at first, as if unsure of its next move. But soon with a more self-assured tone it catapults into the foreground. It is a foreign call, the sound of a predator unknown to these skies. As if its telltale rooftop clinks are not enough, the faint sound of a meandering creek confirms the forecast. It is rain season at last.
As I part the blinds, I catch a glimpse of fog rolling over the nearby hills. Marching onward from some factory just below the horizon, the occasional wisp escapes from the bundled white tapestry. Other parts are still, unmoving, as if the very water droplets are frozen in time. The gutter just yesterday filled with dried leaves is washed clean in a sudden break from the sky. A sigh emanates from the dry grass, the barren creek-bed, and the starved trees that once feared this day would never come. It is a season of hibernation for birds and beasts alike, as the world reinvigorates itself for the year ahead.
The storms are back, and it is so good to be home.
He grabbed his favorite blend of coffee from the interview stool, took a long sip, exhaled, and smiled. White smoke wafted from the nondescript cup and faded slowly into the brisk air. Windows in the peripheries made sunlight play upon the walls, turning the previously hazy interior aglow. Positioned at the front of a room full of chairs and gazing eyes, he looked fully at ease, emanating a humble sort of confidence built over years of public experience. A cardboard image of his book, Citizenville, appeared in the background with its tapestry of lines on the cover symbolizing a more connected world.
6 feet 3 inches with a sports jacket, unbuttoned collar, and slicked-back hair, he could be at home on a movie set instead of the lieutenant governor’s office. He grew up as a child of the Bay, attending Redwood and matriculating to Santa Clara University, and has a deep connection with the area and its people. In a lot of ways he personifies the California spirit, balancing a ferocious drive for his passions and a carefree air, a mover and shaker in the world of politics yet incredibly down to earth. He sat down with FastForward to discuss his new book and his larger political opinions about technology and governing.
Citizenville fundamentally advocates for an increase in individual participation in government. The name derives from Farmville and is based off of Newsom’s proposal to create a digital scoreboard where individuals gain points by helping their community. To overcome pervasive distrust and non-involvement on the part of citizens, even in light of ever-increasing digital sharing, the book proposes combining government and social media. Fundamentally, Newsom wants to reevaluate government’s modus operandi in context of the 21st century. He aims to create greater transparency by uploading agencies’ data to cloud services, which makes public domain information more easily accessible and can lead to further innovation. Instead of only participating with the public during elections, Newton wants elected officials to open a continual dialogue for citizens to voice their opinions. Such fresh voices can give rise to new solutions, invigorating the political spirit for improvement, and solve the varierty of issues facing the nation today.
Even so, in our interview Newsom was clear to distinguish between more involvement and direct democracy. He doesn’t expect average citizens to be fully versed in the intricacies of laws as necessitated by a full democracy; his idea of a larger role is voting more frequently and giving feedback on proposed policies. Small measures like public voting on budgets, implemented during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco, and virtual town halls help give citizens greater input. Newsom argued that the core political aim is improving the government’s output for the average citizen. Since government is in some capacity responsible for many aspects of daily life, from an egg at breakfast to highway construction, we “might as well make it better.” Newsom gave one example of a fictional smart phone app where individuals could take a picture of a pothole, submit it to the city, and the correct agency could fix it with help from the photo’s location data. Such an idea crowd-sources infrastructure improvement efforts and gives the public a more direct say in how they want their tax revenue allocated.
Somewhat a product of the Silicon Valley mindset himself, Newsom has started seventeen small businesses and employs about a thousand workers. Approaching politics from both a business and civic mindset, he actively encourages other political leaders to bring this spirit of innovation to government. “Government desperately needs more of an entrepreneurial mindset” to solve the problems we are facing today, he told us. As most agile startups demonstrate, where a low-level employee can propose a radical new feature, a bottom-up approach to new ideas can yield impressive results in government as well. As it currently stands, the government is inhibited by outdated systems from an age when widespread use of the Internet was simply not foreseeable; most of the federal technological infrastructure is still from the 1970s. Everything from the DMV’s database to internal agency networks hasn’t changed in the most fervent age of technological progress in our history, a legacy of large infrastructure contacts signed decades ago. However, since everything is on a “collision course to digital,” Newsom argues that the government has no choice but to embrace many of the innovations from the private sector. The sooner leaders recognize that, the sooner the public can start improving the institution, he believes.
In his book, Newsom strove to be as party-independent as possible. He quotes members of both sides of the isle as long as they support his notion of increased citizen involvement through technology. Recently he presented with Newt Gingrich at a conference, two symbols of rather polarized sides that agreed upon modernizing the government. The partisan bickering is irrelevant in Newsom’s mind: “It’s not who to blame, it’s what to do.” That spirit was pretty evident throughout the morning as he referenced his party affiliation perhaps twice but otherwise didn’t present his opinion on partisan issues.
As he wrapped up, more contemporary issues took stage. As lieutenant governor, Newsom has already transitioned aspects of his office to a new digital platform, which helped prove its feasibility for more widespread migration in the future. In both grassroots and more mainstream outlets, a dialogue is beginning about a greater role for technology in politics. All in all, Newsom is rather confident about this future. He took one last sip of his coffee and stood up to applause. He shook scattered hands and posed for pictures on the way out the door, a celebrity in his own right, as he continued on his quest to digitize the government.