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California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom Talks Transparency, Civic Tech, State IT Reforms

In an exclusive interview with Government Technology, Newsom highlights his vision for civic tech and how it can fix a few of California’s more pressing pain points.

LOS ANGELES — Cutting wasteful tech spending, hammering down walls to transparency and connecting citizens to critical services were the three pillars of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s message to attendees of Accela Engage, a gov tech conference held by cloud company Accela, on Aug. 22.

At the conference, the former San Francisco mayor and 2018 California gubernatorial candidate called attention to the state’s pressing challenges and the need for systematic — and in some cases exponential — reforms. In the public and informal conversation at Accela Engage, Newsom was interviewed by Accela CEO Maury Blackman, who asked about open data, state led innovation efforts, and what measures are required to incentivize and improve the state’s procurement in the long term, to name a few.

Newsom underscored a need for legislators and government managers to look at IT innovation as more than a mere novelty — it should be seen as an answer to core infrastructure gaps and as a fix for inaccessible state resources.

In a follow-up interview, Newsom spoke with Government Technology magazine about how he’s catalyzed state innovation in his current role, and how he hopes to trigger change if he is elected governor. Here are his thoughts.

Government Technology: Looking at IT procurement, the state has seen instances of progress with progressive programs and help from the federal digital service 18F, which aided California’s procurement of its next child welfare management system. Do you think these kinds of operations have the potential to scale across California agencies?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: I think the president, to his credit, acknowledged the procurement problem from a federal lens right after ther debacle, and actually, has put out some interesting stuff. The problem is that he hasn’t necessarily implemented all of it. And you’re right, we’ve gotten a lot of the benefits of a lot of the work, and the markups, and the write-ups as it relates to ideas and values and direction for reform that we’ve tried to incorporate in California.

The challenge is, it’s been a little bit one-off and it’s a constant battle. For example we’ve been battling with just some basic things, there was an RFP coming for reservations in our park system that didn’t have any of the open data requirements; it didn’t have the open source requirements that all of us have been preaching and promoting, but they went back to the old language and the old defaults, and it was a very challenging process just to get them to update that language — and it shouldn’t be. So it’s an example of where we we are versus where we’re capable of going. And so you’re right, there’s progress, but we’ve got to scale it, and we’ve got to establish some firm expectation within each state agency, that these are the minimum tenets we are going to accept. There’s got to be accountability.

I think to his credit, the governor in the last couple of years in particular has started to focus on this. The first few years he was focusing on solvency and triage — it was understandable that this wasn’t a high priority. But now it’s becoming more and more a priority, and I think his voice is absolutely essential here, because if he would send down a strong edict, an executive order, with high expectations, and folks within agencies and with the bureaucracy — not just agency heads but folks that are mid-level managers and the like — know that this is a priority within the administration, I think that could do more to fast track that than anything else.

GT: You mentioned the problems with big government IT in your talk about the need to change the state’s procurement processes. How they might be capitalizing on government procurement barriers. How do you streamline disruptive improvements in California with respect to state IT purchases?

Newsom: You expose it. The only way to do it is that you’ve got to expose it. I mean no one understands procurement, no one even knows what the hell you’re talking about, but education is needed and you have to expose the “cartels.” I know that’s strong, but those are the types of words you’ve got to use in order to make people wake up, because otherwise people are never going to understand this stuff. It’s so complicated. It’s so dull, and it’s so important. I have a lot of friends who are part of the problem, and they’re friends because they do some good work, but they’re also part of a system that’s frankly pretty corrupted by money, lobbying and by standard operating procedures. And we’re all complicit.

I am ... well, I’m part of the problem, and so all of us have to own up to it. It’s not an indictment of individuals, it’s an indictment of the system at large. That’s why I’m here at this conference, I’m trying to expose it, talk about it. And you guys do it every day — you’re the anomaly, the exception. But we’ve got to make this more mainstream; other newspapers don’t write about this at all. Somehow you have to make this interesting and meaningful to people. I’ve got to change my language, and I think all of us have to change the language we use to talk about technology in government because it’s just so damn important.

GT: Following along these same lines, in 2014, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was signed into law to mandate that agencies publish expenditures openly online and in a standardized way. While the specifics of this act are still to be worked out, it has driven progress for agencies to act. Do you think California needs a similar type of legislation to propel open data efforts forward?

Newsom: We are embarrassingly weak when it comes to transparency. In fact, we are one of the least transparent states in this country. It’s inexcusable. It’s unconscionable, and we are wholly inadequate in terms of our legislative thrust and mandates, and it’s just inexcusable. So the answer is an unequivocal yes. We’ve got a lot of work to do as it relates to transparency.

My own frustrations with transparency led us to be the first state agency, where I charged state lands to bring in OpenGov [a budget transparency tech startup], and that’s not even that enlightening. It’s pretty low bar what we did, but it was the beginning for at least some basic principle for transparency. We started requiring some data sets to be standardized with our agency where I could have a little bit of authority, but for state government at large, it’s inexcusable. And yet it’s understandable, right? Because more transparency means more scrutiny, more scrutiny means more accountability, more accountability means more work and change.

As one of the things you know I got involved with in a bipartisan way with [former state Sen.] Sam Blakeslee on that Digital Democracy tool [a state transparency platform for legislative video search] which of course, we didn’t gain a lot of friends in the Legislature by doing that. It sort of gives you a sense of my resolve on this, that here I was with a former Republican senator, who’s board, by the way, has Charles Munger Jr., who probably will spend $5 million to $10 million to try to defeat me as your next California governor. Yet to his credit, he was still supportive of these transparency initiatives. Digital Democracy is just one of the kinds of things that should be happening within government and not thrust from outside of government. I can assure you that this is not my campaign for governor speech right now, but if I ever happen to be your governor, that is going to radically change. We are going to make significant investments — not in terms of costs because we’re not talking about costs — but in terms of energy to substantially improve our transparency in every way, shape and form.

GT: What are some other use cases or examples that state legislators can look at toward implementing transparency measures? I know the California Justice Department launched its first open data portal to report officer-involved use of force incidents, and there are a few others as well. What are your thoughts on this?

Newsom: That’s why I wrote my book [Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government] on just these kinds of initiatives, that is exactly the kind of thing we need more of. The Controller’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office have been doing some interesting and innovative things. You’re seeing many state agencies adopt govtech budget transparency tools, tools that are easily navigable, so people can start to easily understand how the money is being spent. We’ve got a ballot initiative [The California Legislature Transparency Act slated for November] that a lot of people aren’t very happy about in Sacramento, though it’s likely to pass and is also promoted by Sam Blakeslee and Munger, the same two to help us with Digital Democracy. You know change is afoot here and people are demanding a different kind of openness, and they have a right to demand it. Technology is racing ahead and we’ve got to catch up here. And as Maury said, in that little discussion we just had here, technology is a tool for trust because it’s a tool for transparency. All of these things are healthy, all of this sunlight, it acts as a disinfectant that will ultimately earn us more trust and stronger government.

GT: How can public-private partnership empower this and equip state agencies to provide better services to constituents with tangible results?

Newsom: I have a stronger bias toward public-public partnerships. I mean one of the big missing pieces is just building public platforms within agencies and jurisdictions — meaning local, regional and federal jurisdictions — to just integrate and connect those platforms. I think this is low-hanging fruit that gets no real attention. We talk almost exclusively about public to private partnerships but not enough about public to public. So I absolutely support public-private partnerships, but I have a real strong bias toward collaborations within agencies. There’s just so much redundancy and so much waste, so much inefficiency that is layered on top of layers of government that this, to me, is a real opportunity for efficiencies, and removing the thickets and layers that get in the way of the customer and citizen experience

GT: Assuming a win in 2018, where do you hope to take California in the coming year with regard to civic tech?

Newsom: Well, hopefully the 20th century, and then we’ll work on the 21st. You know as I mentioned up there with the latest procurement debacles — and those aren’t even the latest — it’s a race against time right now because people’s experience with government is contrasted every single day by the private sector, and our experience in public sector is so glaring, and so problematic in terms of civic engagement, and in terms of governmental interaction and trust that, at least from my perspective, this is code red. There are some basic principles as it relates to open data, standardizing data sets, transparency, ease of use and designing systems around interests not agencies that I see as low-hanging fruit. That’s sort of a mindset in state government that we just have to have this masssive cultural and technologcial shift around interests -- not agencies, not silos, and that requires a massive reorganization. That’s not reform, that’s reimagining, and what I’ll be promoting is reimagining these systems, not reforming them — and let me say in advance, I am not naive to the pitfalls and to the challenges of doing that. I mean that is a process that will unfold well beyond the next governor’s tenure, and one should not overpromise how quickly one can deliver on that. But we’re just on a collision course with the future of government and we’ve got to solve it. That’s just it.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.