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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on government bureaucracy to politicians; he also reserves some fire for the IT departments, which he views as an outdated relic.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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  • Re:Hah (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekboybt (866398) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:37PM (#42863357)

    He's not saying it will disappear, but that it's changing. IT jobs will continue to exist, but they'll be moving to service providers rather than being kept in-house.

    And, frankly, this makes sense - if you pay provider X to host your mail server, you're paying them for both the hardware needs (which they can buy in bulk because they're bigger than you) and their expertise (as they're spending their days exclusively maintaining mail servers, while you may be building a webserver one day and fixing a printer the next, forcing your knowledge to be more general.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:51PM (#42863621)

    If he really thinks "citizens need to take the lead in solving society's problems, sidestepping government bureaucracy," he has a funny way of showing it, since he and Jerry Brown have presided over an unprecedented increase in the size and scope of California's state government, despite the state being essentially bankrupt if you add in all the unfunded liabilities for outrageous public sector union pensions [city-journal.org].

    If you're looking for more efficient government, you might want to look to Texas rather than California.

  • Aaron Swartz (Score:2, Interesting)

    by sunderland56 (621843) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:04PM (#42863851)

    Aaron Swartz certainly "sidestepped government bureaucracy with a variety of technological tools". Look what it got him.

  • by delcielo (217760) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:06PM (#42863885) Journal
    I agree with you completely, and for the record I am an IT manager with a corner... cube.

    The benefits of cloud are not typically financial. For some small companies they can be, but not if you are of any significant size. The cost of a given cloud virtual machine is much higher than the cost of a local virtual machine if you already have any kind of server infrastructure. When I divide out the labor, data center costs, storage, backup, etc. I find it costs about 5 times more on average to pay for a cloud server, assuming you're using one of the leaders in the cloud provider space than to pay for your own VM.

    That extra 400 percent cost can go a long way to buying your own scalability. After all, it buys the cloud vendor scalability.

    I think the perfect fit for cloud, outside of the above mentioned small business, is in the 3rd party app space. It makes sense to me for vendors to offer hosted solutions in the cloud, instead of dealing with each client's personal hardware choice, configuration standard, etc. I'm a big fan of cloud in that regard, but too often it's just a stupid buzzword.
  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Holi (250190) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:23PM (#42864097)

    Because of these exact issues we are currently moving our mail back in house this year.

  • by Viewsonic (584922) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:36PM (#42864307)

    Not really. Texas is in a lot of trouble as well. They've effectively removed all taxes and have had to rely on federal handouts to make the payments needed to keep functioning. They've had to literally shutter nursing homes because they can no longer afford taking care of the elderly.

  • Re:Hah (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jbolden (176878) on Monday February 11, 2013 @06:00PM (#42865563) Homepage

    Universities in terms of functions like email are relatively standard and easy. It is easy to provide 35k students with email in house or out of house. Consider though the complexity of courseware, experimental labs, custom data sets and manipulation for research studies, the medical school and HIPAA / billing... What you are really saying is outsource these least complex 10%.

  • Re:Cloud (Score:4, Interesting)

    by icebike (68054) on Monday February 11, 2013 @06:20PM (#42865877)

    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.

    True. Anyone who has been around for a long while sees the same discarded technology pushed to the forefront again and again, often being forced to relearn the same lessons.

    We hired service bureaus, then we got our own terminals, then we got our own mainframes, then we got departmental mini-computers, then company wide mainframes then PCs, then file servers, etc etc etc.

    This isn't always bad, mind you. New technology can make old ideas better.

    I've watched State government division directors railing red-faced in rage at an IT director that overwrote years of backup tapes.
    I've also seen entire offices lose everything to a worm.

    If data has that much value, no rational person would entrust it ONLY to cloud. Still I can and do see the cloud treated like a long piece of CAT5. Most rational cloud users only use the cloud this way, as a pathway to distribution, not as the ultimate or only means of storage. In this way it works fine.

    What is missing is strong encryption of cloud data. When the feds can demand all of your data with nothing more than a rubber stamped national security letter, and you are never told about it, putting anything on the cloud without client side encryption is stupid.

    Unless, of course that data is public knowledge anyway (stripped of private identifiers etc). And in that regard, much of government data is (or can be made to be) of this type. In which case the cloud is a good way of freely distributing it.

    Just don't rely on it for storage.

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