One of the sweetest moments in what is a wonderful paean to community, collaboration, and the technology that can help foster those two critically important elements of civilization comes when Gavin Newsom, in the acknowledgment section at the end of the book he has written with Lisa Dickey (Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government), offers “thanks to all government workers whose work directly and indirectly impacts all our lives each and every day. And to elected officials of all stripes—a heartfelt thank-you for stepping up to serve the public. Thanks you for not sitting on the sidelines and for being willing to suffer the slings and arrows so often associated with public service.”
It is, in some ways, a shame that those words from a successful politician to his peers and others with whom he has worked in government appear after the formal conclusion of the text, for it is in that brief acknowledgement that the former mayor of San Francisco—currently serving as California’s lieutenant governor—reminds us that we have plenty of great colleagues working at all levels of government in spite of the overwhelmingly negative attitudes so many people openly express toward those involved holding elected or civil service positions.
On the other hand, it’s entirely consistent with the approach taken throughout the book: encouraging all of us to look for ways that we can use technology as a tool in playing more actively positive roles in shaping the communities we cherish rather than expecting others, e.g., elected officials and civil servants, to be prescient and powerful enough to create the world of our dreams without our explicit engagement in that process.
Written very much in the spirit of Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, Block and John McKnight’s The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, Jim Diers’s Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Citizenville promotes the idea of individual community members collaborating with each other and their colleagues in government to produce positive change. More importantly, it pushes us toward an approach that already fosters levels of engagement in playful ways: transferring our love of game-playing for virtual results into a form of game with more rewarding real-world results, as summarized in this excerpt from the introduction to Citizenville:
“Shauna Robertson, cofounder of the Crowdrise fund-raising and social-networking site, asked me why we couldn’t transfer the principles of FarmVille to civic engagement. ‘Why can’t I take ownership of my little area of California and say, ‘This is what I want to do—I want to build my schools here’? Or fix the potholes or landscape the traffic medians? In other words, instead of taking care of a fictional farm, why can’t we create a game in which you take care of your actual neighborhood or your town?
“We could combine the fun of a game with the social good of solving real problems. Here’s one way it could work: Let’s say you live in a neighborhood of twenty blocks. If four people there want to play the game—let’s call it Citizenville—you can divide the neighborhood into four areas delineated by an interactive map on the Citizenville Web site. Each player takes responsibility for his or her area, and if others living there decide they want to play too, they can either join forces and create a team or subdivide into even smaller areas.”
Newsom is explicit about the challenges we face in attempting to use technology to increase citizen-government collaborations: “The sad truth is that the history of government is a history of technophobia” (p. 6); government workers often collect magnificent amounts of useful data without working to make it accessible (p. 22); government agencies are much better at attracting constituents to one-time events than to encouraging long-term involvement (p. 115); and “…government isn’t interested in solving problems so much as managing them” (p. 220).
That’s not a situation, he suggests, that is sustainable: “No one foresaw that sea change for newspapers, but in hindsight it had to happen. The same is true for government. It’s hard to predict exactly how this will unfold, but it’s absolutely inevitable that the relationship between people and government will change. If nothing else, the changing expectations of new generations, weaned on smartphones and the Internet, guarantee that we can’t just continue with business as usual” (pp. 174-175).
He offers plenty of positive examples, including the 68-page report titled Road Map for the Digital City—“a blueprint for how to propel New York into the digital age” (an updated version is available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/digital/html/roadmap/roadmap.shtml) and the New America Foundation release Hear Us Now? A California Survey of Digital Technology’s Role in Civic Engagement and Local Government (2011),” a report about technology and civic innovation.” He also reminds us that sites where participants clearly identify themselves rather than hiding behind pseudonyms produce much higher levels of discourse and engagement than those where the anonymous posters engage in “name-calling, insults, and flame wars” (p. 64).
My own explorations of and involvement in community-government collaborations convince me not only that Newsom is, overall, right on track throughout Citizenville, but that there are plenty of models we can follow, including the work cited above (Block, Diers, McKnight, and Putnam) as well as local examples such as San Francisco’s Hidden Garden Steps project, which I’m continuing to document on this blog. The Steps project, designed to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District while strengthening the sense of community that already exists here, is nearing completion exactly through the sort of private-public collaboration that appears to be Newsom’s gold standard in Citizenville. Our local elected public officials and colleagues in City-County government have become as enchanted with the project as we are and, as a result, have been helping us create a volunteer-driven, community-based project even more dynamic, beautiful, and engaging than we originally envisioned. The collaborations have grown from numerous face-to-face meetings, online interactions using a variety of social media tools, face-to-face contact to reach the greatest number of neighbors possible, and partnerships with existing community organizations, local business representatives, and local media representatives.
And while none of this has played out within the context of an online game along the lines of Citizenville, the playfulness inherent in Newsom’s Citizenville model has certainly found its way into our tweets, our Facebook postings, our website, the results we are producing, and the overall approach we’ve taken to working with colleagues at all levels rather than falling into the destructively nonproductive trap of complaining about government and those involved in it rather than seeking opportunities to make it work for—and with—all of us. And then, as Newsom does in his acknowledgements, profusely thanking everyone who has contributed to making our community better.
N.B.: This is the nineteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.