Citizenville: a book every politician should read

If there is a book that you should recommend reading to a politician living anywhere in the world in 2013, then it is “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by Gavin Newsom.

Most of the ideas described in this book are not “truly new” – if you were previously interested in e-democracy or new methods of engaging people in decision making, then you probably already know most of the examples he lists in the book. It is a bit wordy as well – you have to be a bit patient to get to the good stuff.

But the sheer number of ideas and examples, as well as the fact that Newsom himself has been behind some of the e-innovations, makes this book very much worth your while! It also succeeds in slowly habituating the reader to a new way of thinking about what a state agency can or cannot do: how can those institutions reinvent themselves according to the spirit of the creative age.

Here are some of the main ideas of the book:

1. Let’s gamify government and citizen engagement!

A real life example from the book, ” in 2009, the city launched something called Manor Labs—a platform to encourage people to suggest fixes for city problems. In exchange for participating, people received payment in a made-up currency called innobucks. If you submitted an idea, you got a thousand innobucks. If the city actually implemented your idea, you got a hundred thousand innobucks. You could keep track online of how many innobucks you or your neighbors or the lady down the street were collecting. Why would anyone care about collecting fake money? The City of Manor came up with real rewards you could buy with your innobucks. For varying amounts, you could buy a police ride-along or even be mayor for the day. Local businesses and restaurants also got in on the fun, offering coupons for discounts or free appetizers in exchange for innobucks. It’s not fake currency—it’s civic currency. Once Manor launched innobucks, people got very excited about racking them up. They started suggesting ideas left and right, participating in government as though it were the most fun thing they’d ever done. When people went away on vacation, they’d immediately interact with city government upon returning, trying to make up for lost time and build up their innobucks stashes.”

2. Better use of data can make all the difference

Gavin Newsom offers this example from his own experience, “In the years since we launched Project Homeless Connect, San Francisco’s homeless population has declined, emergency room visits have fallen, and deaths from overdoses have plummeted. The project was so successful, it’s been replicated in at least 260 cities. And Care Not Cash, so bitterly opposed by homeless advocates, helped result in a 28 percent decline in the homeless population in its very first year. Now, nearly a decade later, the number of homeless people receiving assistance is down more than 80 percent from the pre–Care Not Cash days. And our efforts were significantly advanced by that one word: data.”

3. Promote sharing of knowledge throughout an agency or a sector of government! Make it fun!

“In 2008, the federal government launched a networking site called A-Space—“Facebook for spooks.” It’s a highly restricted social-media site where the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other intelligence services can share information—a modern networking tool for a networked world. The government also launched Intellipedia—a Wikipedia-style site for spies that Hirshberg describes as “a mechanism where reports from around the world can be aggregated to build encyclopedic knowledge on a subject.” Both of these sites are crucial to the business of spycraft in the twenty-first century.”

4. Release data in easy to use formats, people will know what to do with it! You might not need costly and inefficient procurement to do something useful.

“If a city releases information about bicycle accidents, dangerous intersections can be identified and made safer. If a city releases information about street crime, people can create mash-ups to pinpoint problem areas and times, and police patrols can be increased. If a city releases information about air and water quality or hospital safety or emergency services efficiency, people can make informed decisions that potentially save lives.

“All these initiatives are not only new, they’re cool. That’s the dirty little secret about opening up city data for apps: People don’t create boring things; they create really fun, exciting things—like the mashup of Yelp restaurant listings with the city’s Health Department ratings. Wouldn’t you like to know, when you’re planning a dinner out, whether the restaurant you’re making a reservation for is rated A, B, or C by the Health Department? Soon you’ll be able to do this. Your phone will even send you a warning if you’re approaching a restaurant with a poor rating.”

“Now let’s imagine that the city of Oakland had decided they wanted to build the Crimespotting tool themselves. They probably don’t have a Stamen-level Web design team on the city payroll, so they’d need to outsource the job. This usually consists of sending out a request for proposals, accepting bids over a period of months, and then choosing a contractor to fulfill the project. The cost might reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the end product may or may not have been as good as what Mike and his colleagues produced. Essentially, Oakland got a free gift from a motivated citizen—one who was uniquely equipped to take available data and make it useful, which is the ideal of the open-data movement.”

“Replicating Apple’s model for the App Store is the antidote: Government doesn’t have to come up with new killer features on its own. It has to step aside and let others come up with them.”

“Because San Francisco’s data wasn’t complete, the team had to find another way to map where all the public art was. So they decided to crowdsource. They called for a public art scavenger hunt, inviting people to walk around the city and take note of where the murals were, then report back to the team so they could be included in the walking-tour app. Can you imagine government doing that? You’d need a team of six! You’d need a project manager! It would cost thousands of dollars and take months, if not years, to make it a reality.”

5. Rather than engaging and costly and inefficient procurement, create prizes and challenges!

“The result was Challenge.gov, a first-of-its-kind Web site where federal agencies can launch and publicize their contests. A quick scroll through Challenge.gov reveals a huge range of contests from agencies across the board, including: Apps Against Abuse, launched by the Department of Health and Human Services to create apps to help young adults to fight back against relationship violence and sexual assault; The Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, launched by the Department of Energy to speed the shift from inefficient old lighting products to new, high-performance ones”

“Prizes for these particular five contests range from $3,000 to $15 million, but the submissions roll in for all contests, regardless of how big or small the prize is. New ideas, citizen engagement, even the launch of brand-new industries—the US government’s embrace of contests, aided by December 2010 legislation that expressly permitted them, has created a win-win for all involved. “Congress gave us the authority to run challenges and contests,” Chopra told me, referring to the new law. This is good, he continued, because “I tend to think of procurement as evil—a machine unto itself.””

6. Don’t be afraid of experimentation, of changing your initial idea, of engaging people to make it more useful!

“And that, as Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, told me, “jump-starts a new marketplace. Nobody has a great idea the first time out of the gate. Nobody, ever. You have to iterate and change and pivot,” Ries said when I interviewed him in San Francisco. “The challenge is to have a framework where you can think big.”

“A blue button that downloads your entire medical history. A one-word text to commit money to Haiti. A dashboard that shows you all your interactions with your city. All these are simple solutions, made possible by simple sets of rules for innovating.”

7. Make budgeting participatory

“We can do that by following the example of New York City and Chicago, where a few innovative city officials have implemented participatory budgeting. In 2011, residents of four New York districts were invited to take direct part in deciding how nearly $6 million of their council members’ funds were allocated.”

8. Allow people to fund some projects themselves

“Why not set up a system whereby people can donate $3 or $5 or however much they want—DonorsChoose-style—to help pay for government projects? What if cash-strapped cities and states in need of funding for things like road repairs or providing free public wi-fi or upgrading their DMV’s computer system simply asked citizens to donate specifically toward these projects? Do you think people would give? I do—especially if we could arrange for a tax deduction for the donations.”

 

So if you have any opportunity to get this book into the reading list of a politician you know, do it! 🙂

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