Tony's Reviews > Citizenville: Connecting People and Government in the Digital Age

Citizenville by Gavin Newsom
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's review
Aug 22, 2013

it was ok
bookshelves: 2013, tech, whats-next, reviewed, non-fiction

The book opens with Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, meeting with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia. Newsom is attempting to impress Ilves with details of some of the recent technology initiatives they've instituted, and is surprised to discover that Estonia has already had these things (and many more besides) for a long time. “Americans tend to think of San Francisco as Tomorrowland, on the cutting edge of technology in government, but in fact, we were years behind”, he realises.

What makes this book so frustrating is that Newsom seems to have completely failed to understand the value of this lesson. Rather than using it as a prompt to explore how other cities and countries around the world have already discovered creative and innovative approaches to many of their issues, so as to copy or even improve on them, he remains trapped in his California bubble, preferring instead of seek advice from the usual roll-call of tech pundits as to how best to model his city (or state, or country) on Farmville instead. Other than a couple of token nods to internationally led approaches in internet voting and participatory budgeting, Newsom's entire field of vision seems restricted to Silicon Valley startups, "Code for America"-style hackathons, and a few ideas being tried in a couple of other US cities (the leaders of whom he'd be happy to regularly learn from, as long it's through some sort of MayorBook social network).

Hidden amongst the shallow treatment of most of the key issues surrounding citizen participation (e.g. reducing the privacy debate to Guy Kawasaki's laughable claim that there could be no problem with Facebook knowing every other website you visit unless you're a paedophile), there are some interesting tales of the problems Newsom faced when trying to actually implement some of his ideas in San Francisco — whether from entrenched bureaucracy, a hostile press, or even just their own self-doubt and lack of research (an initial idea to make public transport free to use is abandoned after "realising" that this would simply lead to residents abusing the system as they would no longer value it — an argument that has turned out be entirely untrue in Tallinn.)

Had this been a more reflective book, wrestling more deeply with how to adjust all the superficially neat theories to better cope with exposure to day-to-day political reality, it could have been a very useful view from the inside. But instead these are largely shrugged off with a "Do as I say, not as I do" approach, and that opportunity is lost.


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Reading Progress

August 22, 2013 – Started Reading
August 22, 2013 – Shelved
August 22, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 5, 2014 – Shelved as: 2013
January 5, 2014 – Shelved as: tech
August 25, 2014 – Shelved as: whats-next
September 9, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed
May 23, 2015 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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