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Citizenville: Newsom Argues Against Bureaucracy, Swipes At IT Departments 173

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California, argues in his new book Citizenville that citizens need to take the lead in solving society's problems, sidestepping government bureaucracy with a variety of technological tools. It's more efficient for those engineers and concerned citizens to take open government data and use it to build apps that serve a civic function—such as Google Earth, or a map that displays crime statistics—than for government to try and provide these tools itself. But Newsom doesn't limit his attacks on government bureaucracy to politicians; he also reserves some fire for the IT departments, which he views as an outdated relic. 'The traditional IT department, which set up and maintained complex, centralized services—networks, servers, computers, e-mail, printers—may be on its way out,' he writes. 'As we move toward the cloud and technology gets easier to use, we'll have less need for full-time teams of people to maintain our stuff.' Despite his advocacy of the cloud and collaboration, he's also ambivalent about Wikileaks. 'It has made government and diplomacy much more challenging and ultimately less honest,' he writes at one point, 'as people fear that their private communications might become public.' Nonetheless, he thinks WikiLeaks and its ilk are ultimately here to stay: 'It is happening, and it's going to keep happening, and it's going to intensify.' In the end, he feels the benefits of collaboration and openness outweigh the drawbacks." Keep reading for the rest of Nick's review.
Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government
author Gavin Newsom, Lisa Dickey
pages 272
publisher Penguin Press HC
rating 7/10
reviewer Nick Kolakowski
ISBN 1594204721
summary A rallying cry for revolutionizing democracy in the digital age
Gavin Newsom has enjoyed quite a career in government: after serving two terms as mayor of San Francisco, he became lieutenant governor of California. Maintaining the status quo of our current political system, one could argue, is in his best interest. Yet in his new book Citizenville (co-written with Lisa Dickey, who’s collaborated with a number of famous people on their books), Newsom argues that government should take a backseat to citizens solving society’s problems via collaboration and technology.

“We have to disenthrall ourselves, as Abraham Lincoln used to say, of the notion that politicians and government institutions will solve our problems,” he writes at one point. “The reality is, we have to be prepared to solve our own problems.” The government structure that facilitates such troubleshooting, he adds, “makes use of social media, networks, peer-to-peer engagement, and other technological tools.” In other words, government should open up its vast datasets so that armies of developers and engineers can transform that data into software we can all use.

According the book’s thesis, it’s more efficient for those engineers and concerned citizens to take open government data and use it to build apps that serve a civic function—such as Google Earth, or a map that displays crime statistics—than for government to try and provide these tools itself. It’s easier for citizens to engage with their representatives via Twitter and online chat rooms than gather in a physical room, where voices can be shouted down. He acknowledges that collaboration and technology has its limits: there will always be a need for elected leaders to help manage things, and nobody wants every bit of private data open to widespread scrutiny (to his credit, Newsom acknowledges his own issues with making his official schedule and meetings public).

It’s even possible, he suggests, to make civic involvement look more like “Farmville” or an online game—the “Citizenville” of the title. While he positions this idea as more of a metaphor than something that should be pushed into a reality, he repeatedly suggests that a “mashup of gaming and civic engagement,” powered by “real physical rewards,” could get people to interact more fully with their communities.

But there’s also a significant threat to this vision of supreme interconnectedness: government bureaucracy, which moves slowly and hates releasing anything—such as statistical data—that might cause politicians embarrassment.

“Our government is clogged with a dense layer of bureaucracy, a holdover from an earlier era that adds bloat and expense,” Newsom writes. “But technology can get rid of that clay layer by making it possible for people to bypass the usual bureaucratic morass.” Social networks have made interaction with government a two-way street, forcing politicians to listen to constituent concerns well before the next Election Day.

Newsom doesn’t limit his attacks on government bureaucracy to politicians; he also reserves some fire for the IT departments, which he views as an outdated relic. “The traditional IT department, which set up and maintained complex, centralized services—networks, servers, computers, e-mail, printers—may be on its way out,” he writes. “When the computer revolution began, IT departments were truly needed, as people had no idea how to set up and use the new technologies infiltrating their work space.”

Things these days are different, he argues: “As we move toward the cloud and technology gets easier to use, we’ll have less need for full-time teams of people to maintain our stuff.”

Newsom was mayor, of course, when city network engineer Terry Childs locked down San Francisco’s FiberWAN fiber-optic network and refused to give up the password. Freezing the network also stopped government emails and payroll. After days of outside contractors trying—and failing—to break into the system, Newsom finally had to march into Childs’ jail cell and practically beg him to surrender the 28-digit code. Whether that experience slanted Newsom against IT departments in general is hard to tell, but it’s clear from the book that he’s embraced cloud services as the way of the future.

That being said, Newsom does believe that online collaboration and sharing have their limits as forces for good. He’s not the biggest fan of WikiLeaks. “It has made government and diplomacy much more challenging and ultimately less honest,” he writes at one point, “as people fear that their private communications might become public.” Nonetheless, he thinks WikiLeaks and its ilk are ultimately here to stay: “It is happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s going to intensify.” Privacy isn’t dead, but it’s definitely on life support.

Newsom also isn’t a starry-eyed ingénue: he knows that bureaucracy is firmly baked into how we do things, and he knows that all these shiny technological tools won’t necessarily make government more efficient overnight. However, he’s also relentlessly optimistic in technology’s ability to bring about change—even if that change proves detrimental to our current system.

You can purchase Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Citizenville: Newsom Argues Against Bureaucracy, Swipes At IT Departments

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  • Hah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by schneidafunk (795759) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:34PM (#42863295)
    Leave it to a politician to explain how the IT field is going to disappear. "As we move toward the cloud and technology gets easier to use", and who supports these technologies Mr. Mayor?
  • To the cloud! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:40PM (#42863429)

    So we are supposed to take technology advice from the same guy who allowed Terry Child's to have so much control that he was able to shutdown government operations? Yeah, let's go ahead put that data in the cloud. That will solve the problem.

  • by bitslinger_42 (598584) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:42PM (#42863457)

    I know it's tough to remain objective in situations like this. I've been in some form of IT support or another for the better part of 20 years now, so this emotionally feels like an attack on me and my way of life. I'm trying to remain objective and consider his proposal, but damned if it doesn't sound silly. Servers don't run themselves, even when (especially when) they're in the cloud, and SOMEONE has to be around to help users when their laptop stops working. It's simply not realistic to expect secretaries, accountants, etc. to maintain deep technical understanding of their computers in addition to the deep understanding necessary for their respective fields. Don't get me started on expecting grandmothers to self-support!

    I'm sure IT support will change as a result of cloudification, but I also suspect that there won't be much of a net cost or headcount change, just a shift in how support is provided and where the resources reside. Companies using the cloud will have fewer server admins, but will most likely need more systems architects to manage the proliferation of interfaces and to ensure that whatever is built provides sufficient performance, cost, and stability for their customer base. Where these highly-experienced individuals with deep knowledge of the business will come from without the entry-level server admin jobs I have no idea, but I guess that's why I'm not a manager with a corner office.

  • by bodland (522967) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:42PM (#42863461) Homepage
    Knows nothing to very little of IT. Most users think data moves about rainbow colored moonbeams farted out by hyper intelligent unicorns.

    “When the computer revolution began, IT departments were truly needed, as people had no idea how to set up and use the new technologies infiltrating their work space.” Change that to:

    “When the computer revolution was mature, IT departments were still truly needed, as people had no idea how to set up and use the new technologies infiltrating their work space.”
  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geekboybt (866398) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:49PM (#42863597)

    You don't have to trade the whole department. But instead of hiring 5 administrators with various levels of expertise, you can hire 2 or 3 and let the experts deal with their systems.

    As for those other people? Of course they're not working for you. But they're working for their bosses who are working for your business. Believe it or not, there are companies out there whose sole purpose in life is not to screw you over. Trust is earned - let them earn yours.

  • Sure... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:52PM (#42863649)
    Sure, the IT departments of the 1990s aren't going to be the IT departments that we need today, but we rely on computers much more in 2013 than we did in 1995. In many places, if the computers are down (or the network is down) work simply cannot be done. A great example of this is at a bank, if the bank's internal network goes down, tellers cannot really process your transaction, they can't let you know if a check will clear, they can't add the deposited funds to your account. The best they can do is write you up a paper receipt and add the funds to your account whenever it system comes back up. An IT department is CRITICAL there to fix the problem ASAP, because otherwise the bank might as well stick a closed sign up. There are many other businesses that when the network goes down the business simply cannot function.

    Yeah, everyone knows now how to stick an ethernet cord in your computer. Sure, most companies will have several people who know how to install RAM. How many of them though know how to fix a server when it goes down? How many of them know how to restore from backup? In 2013 it is true that an average (good) IT guy will spend less time having to do things in an average day than back in 1995 simply because hardware and software is much more reliable than it was back then and so less time is spent on maintenance and fixing minor issues. But when you have a failure of some component, having a well-trained and well-equipped IT staff is absolutely critical.
  • Re:IT Departments (Score:4, Insightful)

    by skids (119237) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:57PM (#42863735) Homepage

    As of this moment 3 of our core systems people have been in an all day meeting with outside consultants hired to help them with a task which would not exist but for arbitrary the whims of a cloud service provider.

    Those seeking job security in local IT shops should welcome our new cloud-based overlords.

  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by h4rr4r (612664) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:00PM (#42863783)

    They are working for your business and 10 others. They have no incentive to treat you any better, nor do they have any need to do better than the 4 hour response time or whatever the SLA says. The moment supporting you costs more than you pay forget about it.

    Not only do they have those employees but they also need to make a profit on them. So it will not be cheaper either.

  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SoothingMist (1517119) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:38PM (#42864345)
    That is exactly why the old main-frame days came to an end. People were tired of having to depend on anyone who did not report to them. Contracts meant nothing. Outsiders always have their own agenda and your mission and goals take a back seat to that. The cloud is nothing more than a return to the days of the main-frame. Bean counters really do think they will save money by centralizing services in the hands of third parties.
  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by heypete (60671) <pete@heypete.com> on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:58PM (#42864643) Homepage

    Not only do they have those employees but they also need to make a profit on them. So it will not be cheaper either.

    Google Apps costs $5/user/month (or $50/user/year if prepaid for the year) for a whole bunch of useful services (e.g. mail, calendar, sync+sharing, etc.). There's plenty of other companies that provide similar services at generally similar price points.

    I'm not really sure how any reasonable company can provide a comparable service "in house" for less money. Buying physical servers is expensive. Having trained staff configure them in a way that's geographically redundant, fault-tolerant, and scalable is expensive. Operating costs like electricity, connectivity, maintenance, upgrades, etc. are expensive. Spam is annoying for users and can consume staff time and energy, not to mention server resources. Google (or other similar services) has considerably more expertise in building and maintaining such systems than most corporate IT departments. Economies of scale make it more efficient for them to provide service to many business customers than having businesses each setup their own internal mail systems.

    By outsourcing relatively common, standard things like email and calendar, business IT departments can focus on more "core" things that relate to their specific business. A university I used to work for outsourced ~35,000 student email accounts to Google Apps, freeing up considerable IT resources which could then be used for more "core" university purposes like high-performance computing for research rather than having to deal with email. For academic institutions Google offers Google Apps at no cost, which is a major perk -- even with the paid services for business there's still a lot of room for cost savings and other advantages.

    Are there concerns about letting a third-party host important business infrastructure? Yes, absolutely. Are there benefits to such outsourcing? Yes. Should administrators seriously weigh the pros and cons of such outsourcing? Again, yes.

  • Cloud (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fyngyrz (762201) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:03PM (#42864711) Homepage Journal

    You have to be very naive to trust your data to "the cloud."

    So I doubt that anyone significant is moving to it. For the clueless hordes on Faceplant, already accustomed to handing over everything about themselves, maybe so... but the people who actually run things, and do big things... they'll be keeping their data where they have control over it.

    They don't trust it to the IT department, either. They're more likely to run, or own, the IT department. And they have your data. But you don't have theirs.

  • Re:Hah (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:07PM (#42864791)

    Because economies of scale never exist anywhere.

    And it's always best practice to outsource your mission-critical functions to external providers.

    Thanks for all that insight, I look forward to auditing your MBA program.

  • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:15PM (#42864897) Homepage

    'As we move toward the cloud and technology gets easier to use, we'll have less need for full-time teams of people to maintain our stuff.'

    Gavin Newsom, present. This guy is a political diva. Don't pay attention to him. His book and his overall schtick are pure self-promotion. In California, "lieutenant governor" means "guy who has no duties whatsoever and is there in case the governor dies or something."

  • Re:Cloud (Score:4, Insightful)

    by erp_consultant (2614861) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:31PM (#42865125)

    +1

    I've been around long enough to see fads come and go. This "cloud" crap that we keep hearing about is just that...another fad. I can see some small and even medium sized companies embracing cloud computing...for a limited set of tasks. I work almost exclusively with large companies and none of them, and i mean none, are ready to dump their internal IT staff to just throw it up into the "cloud" and hope everything works out. There is simply too much at stake for them.

    With any cloud based software you are trading power for convenience. You simply cannot customize cloud software the same way you can on premise software. Nearly every big company I have worked with does things a little bit differently than the next big company. So when it comes to mission critical applications, they are either going to build it in house or they will buy something that they can customize to fit their needs. And if it means they have to spend a lot of money to do that then so be it...shit needs to get done.

    Riddle me this: if you were the CIO of Huge-Company-X would you be willing to risk the entire business, not to mention your career and reputation, to some flavor of the month cloud solution? No fucking way. If it's me I'm keeping my data in house where I have control of data security and things are done on MY schedule, not the vendor's schedule.

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