Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Citizen Engagement: Passion, Knowledge, and Innovation

Citizenville is a book by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (two choices with that name - CA LG or Country Music Star) about how governments across the world are leveraging new technology and the inter-connectivity of the web (we still use that word, right?) to provide platforms for citizen engagement.

I first learned about the book while watching Steven Colbert essentially mock Newsom on the Colbert Report.  I can't remember the context, but believe it had something to do with the idea that government was too big with too many problems to worry about whether the police department had a Twitter handle.  The reason I bought the book was the responding confidence of the LG, shrugging off the digs by Colbert, and explaining the inevitability of this initiative.

I read skeptically.  Even considering my own interest in renewed citizen engagement, I have been deeply concerned about the overlap between engagement and populism.  "Don't take candy from strangers."  I have seen far too many elected officials who I do not trust try to make up for the deficit with populist proposals to give the "power back to the people".  It reminds me of my CA days when I noted to the Board that if I were a CA President with bad intentions, I would fill Agenda's with micro-managing busy work so as to leave the long-term strategic planning to myself.  The same is true of populism disguised as engagement.  Busy work.

I was also concerned about transparency being offered as a replacement for engagement.  This is the most profligate misunderstanding about the interface between government and the people it represents.  Transparency is just not enough and often is...too much.  There is a strategy in certain sectors of litigation (thankfully not mine) to "give them everything they've asked for" in discovery.  This means if you ask for every document containing the word "investigate", you should buy a warehouse (#morethanSnowden).  Transparency is essentially a data dump and, in most instances, already exists to near the full extent you may require.  The problem is accessibility.  What good is a warehouse full of documents if I don't have a tool to help me refine my search?  And most importantly, what can I do with the data?  What's next?

While this book is heavy on populism, it resolved my second concern right out of the gate.  Newsom explains how he attempted to release his daily schedule to the public every day, but then realized it would show numerous meetings with donors that would be an inaccurate representation of his priorities in office.  (Talk about refreshing honesty).  He also said his official schedule did not show the public meetings and one-on-one sit downs he was having with citizens just by the very nature of scheduling.  Citizens came by on a more drop-in basis while donors were commonly scheduled.  He continued to release his schedule, but realized that this was the essential flaw of transparency - it was a one-way communication with little room for explanation.

He gets that out of the way about 20 pages in.  The rest of the book is about creating the two-way conversation - true engagement.  He contests that data should be offered in forms usable to third party programmers so that they may use their ingenuity to create new products for engagement.  Google Maps is a sterling example of public resources being categorized and turned into a private good (although free on most devices).

Newsom also advocates for open-source legislation, with a particular focus on open-source budgeting.  He comes up a little short in explaining how this would work (and I'm pretty sure "open-source", i.e., direct democracy, budgeting is what put California's budget in the spin cycle), but it is an interesting idea.  As for open-source law-making, Congressman Darrel Issa (R) proposed a piece of legislation that was essentially written by the "public" when he submitted language crafted via open-source means.  Think Wikipedia.

An important element carrying throughout Newsom's book is that we need to utilize the passion of our fellow citizens to reach better outcomes.  We need to invite them into the process.  But, hear this, the process should not necessarily be replaced.  I think a representative democracy made up those responsible for a catalog of votes, not just one-off interactions, is essential to cohesive comprehensive governing.  How many times have we seen 100 people come out to a public meeting to support increased funding for X and 100 more come out to oppose increased revenue?  There isn't one of us who doesn't want more "stuff" for less money (although I am sure the comments will tell me otherwise).  Someone needs to be accountable for the votes and the "whole package" of outcomes.

But engagement is about educating that process and bringing in passion, knowledge, and innovation.  And at its heart, I think that's what we want from government.  When we have that passion, when we have that amazing idea to help improve the lives of our neighbors, we want an outlet.  If you do not give it to us, we will fight to make it happen.  History shows this over and over again.  As soon as government gets out of the way or, even better, enables this idea, they sooner we will return to harmony.  Engagement is not some favor lent to the governed.  It is an essential and critical function of what government is supposed to do as a service to the people.

If you've read all the way to this part of the post, then I think I'm talking to like-minded folks - people who want to be engaged, maybe even some who have experienced the frustration noted above.  Today represents an important campaign finance reporting deadline.  If you're tired of being pitched, I won't do it again here.  But I strongly believe in everything I wrote above and will spend the rest of my time in the public sphere working to provide you with new platforms for engagement.

I sent out a Newsletter last night asking for $225.  We raised $600 in less than 12 hours.  While we certainly met demolished smoked obliterated surpassed that goal, I am still about $700 short in my direct fundraising efforts and would appreciate your help in making up the difference.  First, some thank you's:

Julia McCready
Rhoda Toback
Joe Wilmott
Joseph Maranto
Phil Levesque
Bert & Zan Wilson
Aggie Sanders
Nina Basu
Jim Columbia
Tim Legower
Andrew Kanicki

I will certainly have my hands full with Thank You notes this week, but am sure to enjoy every second of it.

You can donate online via this link (anything less than $500 does not require you to complete the form requesting employer information).

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Authority: Friends of Tom Coale, Edmund S. Coale, III, Treasurer