Citizen Newsom

From a conversation with Gavin Newsom ’89 and SCM editor Steven Boyd Saum in October 2013 at Founders Den, a space for startups and entrepreneurs in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood where Newsom’s office is located. Remarks have been edited and condensed.

From a conversation with Gavin Newsom ’89 and SCM editor Steven Boyd Saum in October 2013 at Founders Den, a space for startups and entrepreneurs in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood where Newsom’s office is located. Remarks have been edited and condensed.

Citizenville is a very Silicon Valley kind of book. Or maybe it’s better to say very Founders Den?

Probably Founders Den, yeah. Frankly, I moved my office—in fact, I never even moved into the state building. I specifically left City Hall and came down here. It wasn’t symbolic. I wanted to connect with the world around me in a much more meaningful and substantive way. It’s an analogy to my arguments in the book: I could sit there on the eighth floor, top down at the state building, disconnected in many ways from the world around me—or I could be here, bottom up, in an incubator with 40 startups all around me, connected to the world that I’m living in, squarely where I need to be in terms of trying to understand the contours of change versus the old ossified, opaque, hierarchical, top-down, bureaucratic model that’s defined government as we’ve known it and institutions of all types—including universities—for over a century.

Citizenville: Read an excerpt from the book.

Government is on a collision course with the future. We are on the leading, cutting edge of 1973. And we need to wake up to that reality. The world is dramatically changing around us, but government is still operating in silos. It’s still top down, it’s still hierarchical; we are selling down a vision. We are still building up big IT infrastructure, and it’s simply not relevant to this world.

Justice Brandeis said, “In a democracy, the most important office is the office of citizen.” As government leaders, we don’t do things with citizens, we do things to citizens. We treat the public as subjects, not co-producers. Sure, we amplify your voice during elections so you can turn out the vote for us, so you can volunteer for us or write a check to us. But once the election is over, we turn off those voices. No longer are you amplified and truly engaged. We are using the technology relatively effectively to get elected.

We are just using a lot of it ineffectively to govern. How do we govern in a two-way conversation and create a more active, not inert, citizenship where people feel more engaged, more a part of the life of their city, state, nation, and the world we are trying to build?

The book has brought some surprising reactions.

I did not anticipate getting support from Alex Castellanos and Newt Gingrich. Even Eric Cantor and I sat down and had a really great conversation about it. He comes off pretty well in the book, I think. Darrell Issa and I are on a panel next week on the principles of citizenship and the issue of government as a platform—and not government as a vending machine, where you put in a dollar in taxes and get limited services. The debate has been about the size of the machine as opposed to a whole new way of thinking about government as a platform where we are, as my friend Eric Lu says, big on what but small on how. We are less prescriptive on how we achieve goals, but we are audacious about what goals we want to achieve dealing with income inequality, health, and ignorance.

It’s interesting how it resonated with a lot of conservatives. In fact, Newt Gingrich infamously said, at CPAC, “The one book that all Republicans should read …” Then I got a call from Politico, and I told them, “You’re lying, he never said that.” Since then, we’ve had many conversations and email exchanges. People think that an ex–San Francisco mayor and a Democratic lieutenant governor would write a partisan political book. I have zero interest in doing that. I want to focus on what to do. I’m a businessperson first and foremost, and if I sat around and spent all my days complaining about my competitors, I would be out of business.

I tried to make it a book by a politician that could have been written by anyone except a politician. And I offer my own perspective in terms of things that we tried, things that we failed, things we tried where we succeeded, things that were left undone that we could have done better. And a blueprint of best practices for cities large and small and what I think the state and nation can do.

When you were having the conversations and the interviews that went into this book, what were some counterintuitive things you heard?

I interviewed over a year and a half about 68 people. Bill Clinton was particularly interesting, because we got deep into the WikiLeaks conversation—though it predates the Snowden revelations about the NSA—this idea that we live in a glass neighborhood, that “privacy” is dead. My argument was that transparency is a disinfectant and a default value. Clinton subscribed to that but not completely. He said that in many ways WikiLeaks makes us more distrustful, not less so. He said, “Consider this: If we know our emails are going to be exposed, then why are we going to be honest in our exchange? Chances are we are not. So now we are not having as constructive a conversation that aids and advances the public.” He thought it would lead to more opacity, more distrust within organizations.

You’re a regent of the University of California system, with Janet Napolitano ’79 as president. So how do you work those ideas on that scale?

This is my answer to your question. [Pushes a draft report across the table.] We are laying it out. This will be out in six weeks. We’ve been working on this for about a year. I’m not one of those people who thinks technology is going to solve every problem, and I sure as heck don’t want to see teachers go away. Teachers will matter more than ever in a hyper-connected world where everyone is connected to the Internet, where literally our watches are sending information to our T-shirts about our heart rate and our blood pressure. (I’m not making that up—that’s where Cisco is going, where the world is going, as the cost of sensors and technology drops.) Teachers will matter more, though not as lecturers, not as vessels for communicating or to lecture at us, but as mentors, as coaches, as people who are able to engage in a more Socratic way—which is one of the great things about Jesuit education that I love and why Santa Clara is better than most.

On Pope Francis:

I kind of like our new pope, too. St. Francis of Assisi, our city’s patron saint. A good Jesuit. (By the way, everything I was taught at Santa Clara University walked me down the path of doing gay marriage in San Francisco. It’s about celebrating our diversity and our openness. Those are values I credit the Jesuits for teaching.) But I think, boy, the Pope understands those sentiments of building community, and he understands that change can’t just disseminate top-down. And I think he’s listening to folks, so it’s not just inside-out, it’s outside-in. He’s sensitive to the fact that we’ve got to be talking about the larger issues of ignorance and poverty and disease and things that should unite all of us. Powerful. That’s why I’m proud of being Catholic, I’m proud of my Jesuit education—and I was feeling particularly disconnected from the Church in the last few decades

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