Wikidemocracy: Using Tech Platforms in the Public Sector

In recent months two books about the transformation of democracy in America are published. Gavin Newsom wrote ‘Citizenville, How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government’. Introduced on Goodreads as “the story of how ordinary citizens can use new digital tools to dissolve political gridlock and transform American democracy”. David Graeber is author of ‘The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement’. According to Goodreads The Democracy Process is “a bold rethinking of the most powerful political idea in the world—democracy—as seen through the lens of the most transformative political movements of our time and the story of how radical democracy can yet transform America”.

Except for writing books the two men do have very little in common. Newsom is a successful entrepreneur, former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California. Graeber is an anthropologist and a social and political activist, heavily involved in the Occupy Movement.

Newsom’s book Citizenville is inspired by the work of authors like Tim O’Reilly (Government as a Platform). The name Citizenville is chosen after Farmville, the popular game where players work with their friends to tend farms and animals to advance to the next level. Newsom focuses on government that is not making optimal use of the fact that people are far more interested in engaging with social media than in engaging with democracy. He pleads for a more tech-enabled government that uses the principles of successful tech platforms (like Yelp) and the principles of gamification in order to engage citizens and solve problems.

Citizenville is a procession of all the remarkable digital trends of the last decade: the iphone and the app store, twitter and facebook, open data, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding initiatives like KickStarter etcera. For Newsom Web 1.0 is about information, but Web 2.0 is something different. It’s about collaboration, networking, sharing and organizing while using tech platforms mainly developed in the private sector. The dominant message that Newsom is bringing us can be labeled as techno-optimism.

Evgeny Morozov therefor describes the book even as a lazy tome of techno-populism that consists of random entries. Beth Noveck is far more positive than Morozov but still emphasis in her book review that Newsom doesn’t acknowledge that getting to his kind of decentralized, participatory, tech-enabled democracy is a long and uncertain path. In the words of Lydia Depillis “Citizenville is a manifesto for why technological innovation matters. And, like many manifestos —especially techno-triumphalist ones—Newsom glosses over some major complications of the overall program that he espouses.”

They are all right in their remarks. For example, Newsom ignores too easily privacy issues and his statement that transparency will lead to more trust is not based on any fact-based research. The words ‘reinvent government’ in the subtitle are therefor too ambitious and the book is far from being blueprint of how to reinvent government. The question is whether we should want a blueprint to reinvent government? Who wrote the blueprint for inventing Internet or social media?

Or to put it in the words of Graeber “When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called ‘capitalism’, figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality.”

Where Newsom writes a paragraph called Twitter-Enabled Revolutions, only two pages long, to cover the Arab Spring uprisings and Occupy Wall Street, Graeber dedicates a whole book to Occupy Wall Street. He not only writes about is, he was actually there from the beginning. Graeber is an anarchist, adverse to any form of government. There is a lot to say about Graeber’s book that goes beyond the purpose of this blog. It would be worth a blog, and more than one, on its own.

What is interesting here is that Graeber doesn’t focus on the role of social media, leaving me with the impression that we tend to overestimate this role. But he is not really deliberating on that. However, he pays much attention to the way people organize themselves in horizontal groups instead of vertical groups and how direct democracy could work. Although the books are very different and in fact incomparable, this is where Graeber meets Newsom. From a totally different point of view both authors describe how decisionmaking and collaboration between people can take place in an effective way outside the borders of the hierarchal, formal institutions and how we can bypass current government.

My suggestion: read both Newsom and Graeber and start acting now without worrying to much about blueprints. If we do want to bypass government from an ideological point of view or because we feel the need to do so because of budget constraints is irrelevant. To paraphrase Graeber: we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded the capitalist system was the most effective blueprint for our society.