There’s not much I can add to the reviews of Citizenville by Beth Noveck, Evgeny Morozov, Sara Lai Stirland, and Lydia Depillis.

Yes, the book is disjointed, incessantly optimistic, shameless in its namedropping, and often reads like a politician’s stump speech on repeat. Readers must endure bombastic, tired declarations like:

The revolution is happening now, and the world is changing too quickly for government to respond with tiny, incremental changes. It is time to radically rethink the relationship between citizens and government.

Because the future is about information— being able to access it, manipulate it, learn from it, improve our lives with it. And the cloud’s sole purpose is to give us information whenever, wherever we need it. The cloud is ubiquity, access, sharing, collaboration, connection. It works for you.

With the explosion of social networking, smartphones, and apps, we have the tools available right now, in our hands, to transform government. We just have to have the courage to use them.

They are the wave of the future—a future that’s about participation, empowerment, feedback loops, and organically created communities.

Technology has rendered our current system of government irrelevant, so now government must turn to technology to fix itself.

Our problems are so big and so expensive that we can’t afford to buy solutions. But replicating Apple’s model for the App Store is the antidote.

Got that? Our problems are so big that we need an app store.

However, if you’re willing to wade through the predictable, tired applause lines of the past few years of TED talks, then Citizenville offers readers an interesting glimpse of some of the obstacles that stand in the way of bringing innovation to government. The most interesting revelations run counter to the book’s main arguments. Newsom and Dickey claim, for example, that “transparency leads to trust.” A few pages later we encounter a telling counter-argument. When Newsom took office as San Francisco’s Mayor, he asked his team to publish his daily calendar online. His advisors raised their eyebrows. What about private meetings with potential donors? Wouldn’t that dissuade wealthy donors from meeting with Newsom if they knew their names would be published on a public website? As Newsom and Dickey explain:

People don’t like the idea of their elected officials spending time soliciting funds, and the whole process, fairly or unfairly, feels unseemly. How would it look if, in a particularly busy fund-raising period, I had multiple private meetings with potential donors? Fund-raising may be a necessary part of politics in this country, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.

In the end, concerned that transparency would lead to less trust, Newsom decided not to name the individuals he met with on his public calendar. (Lima’s mayor, Susana Villarán, also promised to publish her calendar, though readers are left with the impression that only select appointments are made public.)

The title of the book is a play on Zynga’s popular social network game, Farmville. Newsom and Dickey cite a Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that today’s youth spend on average 53 hours per week with entertainment media. Much of that time is spent on gaming and social media platforms. Meanwhile, in 2011, a record low 12% of residents of Los Angeles bothered to show up to vote on ten ballot initiatives that each represent millions of dollars in campaign advertising. Earlier this month only one in five registered voters in Los Angeles bothered to vote in the mayoral primary election despite the lack of an incumbent candidate.

If civic engagement is at a record low, and if youth are spending more time than ever with social media and online games, then, Newsom sensibly proposes, governments must use those same platforms to reach the next generation of citizens. In the same way that Schoolhouse Rock! used television to teach civics to young viewers, government needs to use technology and social media to create stronger ties to its citizens. Specifically, he recommends four concrete actions that all government agencies can implement:

  1. Make all data available in raw formats to the public so that developers can re-purpose the information.
  2. Fund prize-based competitions similar to the X-Prize to encourage citizens to come up with solutions to problems facing their communities.
  3. Host an app store (like San Francisco’s own SF Data Showcase) that aggregates applications developed by the community that use open data.
  4. Use social networks to build stronger ties to community groups and to exchange best practices with similar government agencies around the world.

They are sensible recommendations that would have been made more compelling had they been accompanied by more examples from cities and government. The greatest obstacle to their implementation, of course, isn’t technical, or generational, or even cultural, but rather political. In any organization with an innovative employee who wants to share information, there is a manager who wants to maintain the status quo. Until the leaders of government institutions change, I don’t expect a change in their practices.

Which is why I am most intrigued by Newsom’s reflections on the difference between moral and formal authority:

What one thing did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela have in common? The answer: jail time. These men were great leaders of their times, and yet none of them started out with even a shred of formal authority. None had been elected or appointed to a position of power or otherwise anointed, but what they lacked in formal authority, they more than made up for in moral authority.

I’ve always been fascinated by this distinction between moral and formal authority. Formal authority is a twentieth-century model, a relic of the age when power was vested in institutions rather than people. It is power as bestowed through titles rather than power earned through genuine leadership. Moral authority, on the other hand, is granted by the people. It is indifferent to titles, and yet it’s invariably more powerful in the end than formal authority.

As technology transforms every facet of our lives, it lays bare this division between moral and formal authority.

The optimist within me wants to agree with Newsom. I am attracted to the idea that capable, empathetic leaders can challenge the institutional status quo by building influence through online networks. This was the allure of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign in the US and the so-called “Green Wave” of support for Colombian underdog presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus. But in the end, both Dean and Mockus lost, and institutions everywhere are still led by insiders who have been groomed for their positions.

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