Citizenville: Creating a Digital Town Square (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a 2 part article covering Citizenville, the new book by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom.

Citizenville-coverFor me, Newsom’s book Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, can be summed up in one word: inspiring. On a professional level, this subject hit really close to home as I’m part of the team working on our citizen engagement tool: SpeakUp℠SM. We want to make it easier for the public to get involved with their government and help improve processes — as is noted in this book, ”two-way is the future.”

In his book, Newsom points to 5 ways to connect people to government:

  • Government must be transparent
  • Data must be open and useful
  • Engage people on their terms
  • Let the people solve problems
  • Add a new mindset to gov — innovation and entrepreneurial attitudes

Each of these is a critical point that deserves in-depth discussion but I’ve chosen to  limit the focus of this article (Part 1) to two items on Newsom’s list.

Data – make it open and useful

“The future is sharing — open data, open participation, open source, open everything. And it must happen at every level.“ (Newsom, pg. 94)

Like many people in metro areas, I rely heavily on public transportation. I’ve had countless conversations with friends, coworkers, and even strangers waiting for the bus about the most reliable public transportation app. I rely on the app to give me up-to-date, real-time information on how long it’ll be before the next bus arrives. Do I have time to fill up my coffee or do I need to start sprinting down the street?

Although it’s integral to my daily routines, I rarely stop and think about where this information is coming from. But it’s actually pretty easily to find out. Check out San Francisco’s public data portal,, select ‘transportation’ from their category list and voila, a list of public data sets that any clever developer can turn into something powerfully convenient for all San Franciscans.

“If we could harness one tenth of the energy that people have spent trying to create the next great smart-phone app and direct it toward building tools to improve government, can you imagine the progress we’d make?” (Newsom, pg. 11)

There are hundreds of other really cool and convenient applications that leverage public data to easily connect me to my community: How safe is my neighborhood? How well did this restaurant rate on the health inspection? What historic landmarks are in my area? There’s an app for that.

Crowdsourcing — let the people solve problems

“There’s a pervasive sense of trying to bring back that feeling of community, public good, and collective welfare that drove civilization for so long. This is democracy going back to its roots, back to the local level, where change occurs.” (Newsom, pg. 231)

The first time I saw the White House’s WeThePeople, was around the same time that Granicus launched SpeakUp℠SM.  When I really took it all in, I thought, “wow, this is modern democracy.” This is the people directly telling their government – their president – what they want and need. It had a powerful impact; this will revolunative how citizens interact with their government.

Sure, there’s been some backlash about increasing the number of signatures required for an official response (due to the widely supported request to build a Death Star), and many of the ideas not being implemented, but if the goal is to increase engagement with government and give the people the opportunity to affect societal change through technology, then haven’t they done that? Some petitions have grossed more than 100,000 signatures, giving people an opportunity to be heard on what matters most to them.

Since launching SpeakUp℠ in early 2012, we’ve seen a number of local government organizations reach out to their constituents and tap into the collective knowledge of the people to help them solve some of their more pressing issues, or, to discover what it is that they truly want to see in their community. Taking this application to the local level, citizen suggestions can be very effective. And when these suggestions are acknowledged and implemented, we build a stronger sense of community and trust.

The Future…

“Reignite the public’s passion for civic engagement” (Newsom, 232)

gavin newsom - smallI felt a sense of pride when reading this book because so much of Newsom’s message coincides with the Granicus mission: “designed specifically to help public agencies establish meaningful connections with their community online.” In affirmation, a colleague emailed me to say, “as I read this book I keep thinking he’s going to mention [Granicus].”

Newsom also spoke a lot to the idea of true engagement and how online services can shape that. On the SpeakUp℠ team, we continue to focus our efforts on strengthening user engagement. Getting citizens to the site is only half the battle, keeping them there and bringing them back is what really matters and is the best way that we can support our customers’ initiatives as well as citizen efforts.

Citizenville saliently points out that this ‘change’ in how government interacts with citizens won’t happen on its own – not just by one organization or by a single application. We need to create an environment of online collaboration that’s easy, convenient, and effective across multiple channels. We’re just scratching the surface of this now and I’m excited to see its progression over the coming weeks, months and years.

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