What happens when the town hall goes digital?

by Lydia DePillis | February 11, 2013

photo credit: Getty/Justin Sullivan

Let no one fault local governments for hiding from the networked era. Nearly every official and government agency in a major metro area uses Facebook and Twitter, and some cities have hosted app development contests to get their citizens coming up with ways to use public data for good. Local electeds can even establish their popular bona fides simply through the assiduous use of social media. Just look at Cory Booker, who gained notoriety for personally digging people out of snowdrifts when they asked for help on Twitter. If all politics are local, social media has given politicians a powerful tool: a means of constant contact with nearby residents. And all this is not just for the good of the politician: citizens, in theory, should benefit from this central, open, and accessible operation. 

That ideal, however is not quite how things currently work. A whole lot of the apps and Twitter handles and Facebook campaigns are for show: Look at us! We're hip and with it! Actually improving governance using technology is a trickier problem. 

California's Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, formerly the mayor of super-wired San Francisco, thinks he has the answer. His slim new book, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, is a tour through the ways in which governments are already taking advantage of their residents' web savvy to better deliver services and gather input. Newsom often uses his own mayoral administration as a populist role model for a new technological era.1 "It's not about elites taking charge, controlling the system, and telling us what's good for us," he writes. "We have to accept the fact that top-down hierarchy is no longer working and it won't ever work again." (It also belongs to the genre of books that politicians write when building a launchpad for even higher office; you may expect to hear these phrases recycled as campaign slogans in Newsom's inevitable campaign for governor.) 

In Newsom's ideal world, citizens would function like their digital avatars in FarmVille.

Most of all, though, Citizenville is a manifesto for why technological innovation matters. Old models of relating with constituents, who more and more have migrated their lives online, no longer work. In Newsom's ideal world, citizens would function like their digital avatars in the Facebook-based game FarmVille, carrying out their daily needs and relating as a community through their computers and smartphones. Much of that is extremely useful and commonsense: Of course politicians could make it easier for citizens to comment on and contribute to legislation as it's developed. And yes, there really should be some database of stories about solutions to urban problems, so that they can spread more quickly.2  

And yet, like many manifestos—especially techno-triumphalist ones—Newsom glosses over some major complications of the overall program that he espouses. Primarily, he generally fails to explain why citizen engagement is always important, when it can sometimes lead to misguided decisions.

This is not a problem that emerged from technology, of course. Old-fashioned forms of direct democracy (ballot propositions, for example) have been used for non-progressive ends, such as limiting the rights of gay people. But Newsom draws a line between the misguided wisdom of the crowds and the technologically empowered crowds. For Newsom, the old way of doing things was corrupted by special interests. It is an old criticism, and there is no denying the role of special interests in our politics; but still this is a fundamental misdiagnosis. People do actually vote for these things: when given a chance to lower their taxes, citizens will almost always do so, because they don't see the whole picture of resources that are needed to keep government functioning. Anti-tax referenda have wreaked havoc on the budgeting process in California and Washington, and Newsom does not prove that better digital platforms will magically lead to more enlightened popular governance. 

Sure, it makes sense to get a sense of peoples' general priorities, and perhaps even let them decide how budget surpluses are spent. If you want new turf on your baseball fields enough to stump for votes—and the basic budgetary needs have been covered—you probably deserve the greener grass. But overall budgeting needs a comprehensive approach, a long-term vision, and the ability to make sometimes unpopular decisions for priorities like the social safety net and mass transit. While these deliberations should be transparent, it's hard enough to get things done with legislative bodies of only a few hundred members, to say nothing of a few million. There is such a thing as too much popular participation. (The Founders understood this when they chose representative democracy over direct democracy.) 

The other problem with Newsom's digital utopia—which also involves bonuses for public employees being handed out on the basis of Yelp-like reviews, and creating a Kickstarter system for unmet budget priorities—is his absolute certainty that everyone will want to participate. It is true that the old public meeting format is vastly inadequate, and that government must use technology in order to reach a broader swath of the population. But there is still merit to a deliberative process in which important decisions are hashed out in public, and in real time. Electronic participation requires that people take a break from playing Words With Friends or shopping on Amazon to engage with some picayune question of urban governance. Who can judge if that is actually easier than requiring people to show up at the local rec center at dinner time? Just look at the latest experiment in mass digital democracy: Facebook invited people to vote on how their privacy settings worked, but took away the right when fewer than 1 percent of users actually did so. 

Newsom is not completely blithe about the complications of municipal use of digital technology. He deserves credit for calling out the fake attempts at digitally enlightened governance: The times when input is invited and then allowed to slip into the void. He passes along the "realness rule," coined by an aide to Representative Eric Cantor, which decrees that people have to see an impact to their participation, or at least a considered response in order to believe that it is having any impact. He also recognizes the headaches of truly open government, having learned from experience that making data available often means getting criticized for what it reveals. But ultimately Newsom, like so many Silicon Valley natives, believes that technology holds the solution to all problems. While he recognizes that there are complications to voting electronically, his is confident that someone will come up with a way to do it, because, well, Estonia figured it out.3 In reality, lots of very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make voting easier, and concluded that the fundamental fix involves early voting by mail and more polling places with longer hours—anything without a paper trail carries tremendous risk of error. 

Of course, technology can improve local government tremendously, and officials need to lower barriers to trying projects, even if they ultimately fail. But it is not always the only answer. This stuff still takes work—offline as well as on.  

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