Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom ushers in 21st century to California government

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at the California Economic Summit. (Photo Credit: California Economic Summit)

Technology has fundamentally changed the way we connect with one another, our professional lives, and our role (and overall power) as consumers. But until recently, it has left our relationship with government relatively untouched.

In an effort to speed up this process, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has partnered with Code for America to launch the Citizenville Challenge, daring local government leaders to commit to moving government into the 21st century.

“There is huge potential to use technology to transform the way government and citizens interact, communicate and solve problems,” said Newsom in a statement.

The challenge coincides with the release of Newsom’s first book, “Citizenville.”

While Newsom explained how technology has leveled the playing field during a recent promotional appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” host and political satirist Stephen Colbert interrupted Newsom asking, “What the f*** does any of that mean?” While the Lieutenant Governor and the audience laughed, Colbert added, “Is there a glossary? Is there a bullsh*t translator?”

Despite the coarse language and Colbert’s typically thick sarcasm, these are valid questions that many common citizens would ask. Newsom is challenging city leaders to become more transparent, efficient, and inclusive by implementing Gov 2.0 policies. These policies include institutionalizing innovation, increasing interoperability, creating a citizen engagement app, hosting an app contest, or creating civic APIs. These are somewhat vague and wonky activities for those of us who don’t live at the intersection of technology and government.

So let’s break down the specific steps Newsom believes governments should take to build a government for the 21st century.

In order to lay the groundwork that fosters civic innovation, cities should implement Gov 2.0 policies such as Palo Alto’s open data initiative or West Hollywood’s social media policy.

Creating an innovation office or work group that will monitor, develop, and advance Gov 2.0 policies serves to institutionalize innovation at City Hall. Riverside was named the world’s Intelligent Community of the Year in 2012 thanks in part to the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Steve Reneker’s efforts to promote digital inclusion.

Cities could increase opportunities for collaboration and interoperability by adopting a standardized data format. For example, San Francisco and New York City, in cooperation with Yelp, developed Local Inspector Value-entry Specification (LIVES), which they hope will become a nation-wide standard for health inspection data. As a result, Yelp has integrated the hygiene scores for restaurants in both cities on their site with a link to the full inspection report and opened the program up for participation by any interested municipality.

As cities are being forced to do more with less, residents need to step up and take a more active role in improving their communities. To nudge citizens towards participation, cities could launch a civic engagement app, like San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District’s CPR app. The mobile app details the exact location of the nearest public access AED and empowers citizens with CPR training to provide life-saving assistance to someone having a cardiac emergency nearby while EMS arrives.

Bureaucracy has resulted in public agencies collecting enormous amounts of data. But as we’ve previously pointed out, the act of releasing these large troves of data sets does not inherently make them useful.  By creating a civic Application Programming Interface (API), like Open311 (already adopted by several California cities), municipalities unlock the potential for innovation by the entire global development community, not just the ones on their payroll. 

By accepting the challenge, municipal leaders agree to implement any of the above policies. Code for America, referred to as the “Peace Corps for geeks,” will work with cities to develop an action plan and facilitate implementation of the initiatives they wish to pursue.

So far the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and Fresno have already signed on.

Through the challenge, Newsom encourages governments to move away from the vending machine model (collect taxes and provide a service) and toward a more transparent and participatory form of democracy, something California Forward applauds.

Technology provides governments with new tools, but also new challenges. To solve increasingly complex civic problems requires governments to embrace the democratization of data and increased collaboration between citizens and their elected leaders. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg