When we Met the Governor: Marin’s Gavin Newsom

We caught up with Kentfield resident Gavin Newsom back in 2013 when he was serving as the lieutenant governor of the state, in the middle of his journey from San Francisco mayor to California’s highest post.

Gavin Newsom has always been an early adopter. Just one month into his first term as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, he did the unthinkable and made it possible for same-sex couples to marry. What happened next has been well documented — more than 4,000 marriages performed, an opposition that rallied in force, the issue taking center stage during the 2004 presidential campaign and ultimately, the voiding of the marriages by the California Supreme Court. Despite noise from both parties that people weren’t ready for gay marriage, Newsom’s resolve did not waiver, and he continues to campaign loud and proud for marriage equality.

The lieutenant-governor of California [at the time of publication, now the governor] is using the bully pulpit of the state to take on another challenge dear to his heart, this time shining a light on what he calls the “fraud of public engagement” — politicians who only engage with the public at election time. Propelled by what he believes is real inequity in the public’s ability to actively participate in governing, Marin’s native son spent time with innovators from across the country to understand how technology can not only transform government, but also help empower Americans to act. Many of the lessons come from his time as mayor, when he was able to tap into resources provided by the broader technology community to create platforms for real discussion with his constituents.

Realizing that getting Americans back into the governing process was happening sporadically at best and much more slowly than he’d like to see, Newsom took to writing to make a case for “active, engaged citizenship” wherein real change is made from the bottom up. The result is his book Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. Looks like this early adopter is trying to shake things up once again.v

You’re back to your roots here in Marin. What do you like best about being home?

Places like Joe Wagner Field and eating snow cones. I love that place. I drive by all the time. My kids are already rolling their eyes at ages 1 and 3, saying, “Not again, Dad!” So many good memories from my Little League days, when I played for Round Table Pizza and the Italian Athletic Club. It’s really things like running into someone I went to middle school with or driving by the old Redwood baseball field or the new track with the fake grass that put a smile on my face. I drive by and say things like, “Wow, this world has changed; they didn’t have Astroturf at schools back in my day!” Those are the fun things that I love about Marin: the playgrounds and the open space. And the restaurants that are still around from when I was young. I also really love downtown Larkspur and the great work being done out of Larkspur Landing. That area is finally turning around.

What inspired you to write Citizenville?

Frustration. I was frustrated with the way politicians like myself campaigned using digital platforms and then, in contrast, how we used them to govern. Politicians are good at giving people a voice during a campaign — encouraging them to volunteer, contribute and show up on Election Day — but when the election is over, we tend to turn off those voices. It’s right back to the one-way model where it is “You vote and guys like me decide.” That’s not the way it should be. Probably the true tipping point of inspiration was President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Watching 35,000 self-organizing communities come together through mybarackobama.com was remarkable. Then his administration created a transition platform called change.gov to carry over those voices from the campaign into the governing of the country. The site asked, “What’s on your mind? Be part of the change; change starts from the bottom up,” and people really participated. But their number one priority wasn’t what the administration expected — the war on terror or climate change or the financial meltdown — it was legalizing marijuana. The administration dismissed it, and of course, the online community got upset because they took this issue seriously. As a consequence, the site went under “reconditioning” and ultimately transitioned to the one-way-broadcast site whitehouse.gov. It was disappointing. He too, this bottom-up candidate, became a top-down president, and I thought, If he can’t do it, what in our political system is preventing him from engaging in two-way dialogue with the national public?

Describe how the political system engages the public today.

We have vending machine government. You put in your dollars and we give you limited services such as fire protection, health care, etc. You don’t like what you get? You shake the machine; you show up on Election Day, you vote for the guy or gal on the white horse who is supposed to save the day. Then two terms later, they are termed out, promises haven’t been met and you say, “What happened?” The current system doesn’t allow politicians to live up to their promises. It’s so much easier to not continue the conversation after Election Day. I believe we all have good intentions, but we’re trapped in a system.

Is government getting too big to have two-way dialogue?

I’m a progressive Democrat, so to me, it’s not about a smaller government; it’s about more active citizenship. I called my book Citizenville because it’s about the citizenship. People are treated as subjects by government when they should be treated as co-producers and be participatory, every day. I believe it’s not about petitioning government to do more things for us; it’s about creating a platform where we the citizen can do more for ourselves. You should be able to wake up and have a platform where you can request to have a pothole fixed and then be given updates on that request. Two-way communications. It’s about using tools and technology to not have to wait and wonder if that pothole will get fixed.

What do you think would have to happen in our present system to allow for success for the bottom-up candidate?

We need to move away from vending machine–style government — limited choices — to a government that is a platform for real partnerships, real engagement, real active citizen participation. An important step is making the data our government agencies collect public, easily accessible and standardized so it can be organized, mashed up by third parties and used to solve big problems. This is what happened in the ’80s when Ronald Reagan’s administration took the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) satellite data, which was funded and subsidized by the taxpayers, and released it to the public. As a consequence, billions of dollars and millions of jobs have been created because that data has been used for GPS, weather reporting, etc. Or look at what Steve Jobs did with his platform. He didn’t come up with the 800,000 apps available today; he came out with a dozen. He let the private sector come up with ideas. The whole principle was he took the old cellphone — which was like government with limited choices — and he opened it up as a platform for unlimited choices, abundance, true partnerships.

Have you employed these tools of technology in your governing process?

I went through my own struggles with this model and I tried to be very honest about it. As mayor, I had the ability to be more proactive. We did the first open data executive order in the country, where we did app showcases, played around with open APIs (application programming interface) and worked to create community dialogue using 311 and Twitter. We did a lot. But at the state level, it’s comedic. I think few people know about the scandals involving many of our state’s information systems. It is jaw-dropping. The hundreds of millions and billions of dollars of waste, true fraud and abuse. A $208 million upgrade to the DMV saw the contract basically killed after half the money was spent, leaving us with 40-year-old technology. Or the $260 million court management system project that will cost us at least $1.9 billion when it’s finally complete, seven years past deadline. Or the CALPERS system where they spent over $200 million to consolidate data sets and the result is it’s less efficient. Hundreds of millions, wasted, gone, burned out, because we’re still building top-down bureaucratic systems. Hence the book and the solutions I discuss.

How do you view local politics?

I think the most important thing for Marin County supervisors, city administrators and city council members is to embrace that we are living in an age of hyper-transparency. We must understand that the data being stored by our various government agencies is not our data; it’s your data, it’s the public’s data and the public has a right to it. They funded it, sourced it and generated it through the investment they’ve made with their tax dollars, so I believe we need to have an aggressive open data movement in this county. Let’s see what exists in our vaults today that could make a difference, such as in the Marin library system, or going back to the turn of the century to the data we’ve collected on environment protection, species management, and air and water management.

Do you have any fears for your children in today’s hyper-connected world?

My biggest concern is privacy. We live in a fishbowl. Right now, we’re giving up our privacy and we don’t always know it. The challenge is that privacy is being used as a commodity. Give up your privacy, you get something in return like better service and that’s very tempting for people, but some of us, we may want to pay the extra dollar to not have all of that information tracked. Maybe I’m of the generation where I want informed consent. Now, my daughter will probably have no issue. She’ll most likely always want the latest and greatest because she’s growing up as a digital native, in a world where you are online or asleep, as Eric Schmidt has said. She’ll probably say, “Of course I will give up my geo-position because I want my friends to know where I am, I want companies to know not what I’m purchasing but why I’m purchasing so they can provide me service before I ask.” She’ll be living in a customized world that I can’t even imagine today.

Why does the one-way model of governing persist, in your view?

As Lincoln said, “We’re all born originals, but we die copies.” To me, that describes the arc of a political campaign. We begin original and authentic during the campaign, but by the time we are termed out, we’re just like the ones who came before us. We die copies. The process of governing takes away your authenticity, takes away that voice. I don’t care what your political stripe is, you see that happen with all politicians. We might romanticize their impact after they are gone, but in actuality, while they governed, they encountered great friction and struggle in truly engaging with the public.

Are you excited for the America’s Cup?

We worked so hard to get it here so it’s great to finally see it about to begin. To see a little bit of the AC world series, it gives people a sense of what it’s all about, but no one has seen these AC72s in competition. I think that’s going to change people who are on the sidelines and still wondering what all of this hype is about. My whole idea — the whole point of working so hard to get it — is to keep it, so they [Oracle] have to win. Then we build on it. This is the beginning of what I hope will become a legacy for the city.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s July 2013 print edition.