Gavin Newsom's Citizenville Is Packed with Bad Ideas
Look: It's not that every politician has to be a gifted writer. Nobody expects California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom's new book, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government (The Penguin Press, $25.95), to be Dreams from My Father, or even The Audacity of Hope. But the fact that Newsom needed to pull a cowriter in (Lisa Dickey is credited on the cover with a "with," but that's the only mention the poor woman gets at all) to produce this tepid mess of corporate-speak and junior-TED-Talk blather is especially disheartening.
To be fair, Newsom is attempting a difficult dance here: He's trying to draw a nonpartisan or politically disenfranchised audience that may or may not know anything about the worlds of government or technology. Which is to say, he has to not only explain how a Facebook sharing model can be applied to civic governance, he also has to explain what Facebook is and how city governments work.
But that doesn't justify moronic passages like this: "I've always loved the acronym KISS—for 'keep it simple, stupid,'" and "In December 2009, a flock of birds was released upon the world. But not just any birds—Angry Birds." He trots out tired clichés about how Napster and torrent clients and other "armies of Davids" took down the "Goliath" of the music industry. It's all written in a cloying Paco Underhill style of business writing that's information-light and positive-attitude-dense.
It's a shame, because the premise of the book is solid: Government does need to understand how to use technology better. But Newsom tosses ideas onto the wall and doesn't seem to care if they stick. Some of the ideas that Newsom presents—including starting a sort of Yelp-like review system for government agencies where the best-reviewed departments get rewards every week or month, and crowd-sourcing solutions to problems using incentivization—sound reasonable enough on the surface. But the picture that Newsom finally focuses on is a United States government that has been "empowered" with the ruthlessness of a late-1990s dot-com startup. As President Obama has been arguing since his second inauguration, government is responsible for some things that no other business can (or should) handle, and you can't apply the tools of unrestrained free enterprise—which is what Newsom is talking about here—to government without a fundamental change in the government-citizen relationship.
We don't need a government that crowd-sources work for free that skilled government workers now perform, and applying the customer-is-always-right principle of social media to essential government functions is only going to make life more miserable for government employees. Making it easier for people to get their garbageman fired for not smiling enough isn't going to make the essential business of a city happen any faster. It's just going to result in higher jobless numbers. Newsom is a gifted politician—as mayor of San Francisco, he single-handedly jump-started the national conversation about gay marriage nearly a decade ago—but in Citizenville, he seems unable to separate his good ideas from his shit ones.