California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

California’s lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor explains his text, Citizenville, about the future of government in the digital age.

Gavin Newsom was elected California's lieutenant governor in 2010. He brings to the post skills from his successful backgrounds in both the private sector and local government, having served as the mayor of San Francisco—the youngest in more than a century—and as a county supervisor.  As mayor, he initiated a number of bold measures, including new environmental initiatives, the city’s first-of-its-kind universal healthcare program and a volunteer initiative, Project Homeless Connect, modeled by more than 130 U.S. cities. In his book, Citizenville, Newsom offers a road map for reinventing citizenship in today's networked age.


Tavis: I’m sure none of us need to be reminded just how much Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and basic old email has transformed our lives. In a new text titled “Citizenville,” Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, argues that it can also transform the way our government functions.

Breaking through gridlock and ensuring that people everywhere in this country have a seat at the decision-making table. Lieutenant Governor Newsom, good to have you on this program.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: Hey, good to be on. Thanks for having me.

Tavis: First of all, congrats on your wife – I shouldn’t say on your wife; you’ve been married for a while.

Newsom: Yeah, no, thanks.

Tavis: But congrats on your wife’s recent Spirit Award.

Newsom: Yeah, they won, yeah, just won the Spirit Award and then were nominated for an Academy Award for their documentary called “The Invisible War,” about rape and sexual assault in the military, which is about as alarming as anything I’ve experienced in terms of just understanding some of the complexities.

Even if – I told my wife, “If 10 percent of this film is accurate, boy, we should stop everything we’re doing and own up to what’s going on in our military today.” Panetta leaned into this, and hopefully Hagel will do the same.

Tavis: Yeah. Do you think Hagel’s going to get through, speaking of Hagel?

Newsom: Unless something dramatic happens and surprising. But it goes to the frustration and the friction, and frankly one of the reasons I wrote this book is I’m so disinterested and increasingly disengaged with these stale debates about who’s to blame, focusing more on what to do.

I want to focus on how we can break this logjam and partisan acrimony, and the ideological rigidity that exists not only in D.C. but a state like California and a lot of local government.

Tavis: Finally about your wife, I saw her waddling – can I say waddling?

Newsom: (Laughter) You’re going to get in trouble. I’ve got to go home.

Tavis: You got to go home, I don’t.

Newsom: No, that’s the point.

Tavis: She looked gorgeous, but I’m saying that baby bump on the red carpet.

Newsom: No, we’re very – she’s coming. That’s it.

Tavis: Number three (unintelligible).

Newsom: No more.

Tavis: This is the last one?

Newsom: I didn’t say that on number two. I’m saying –

Tavis: Yeah, this is the last one.

Newsom: – that now I’m putting my foot down.

Tavis: Okay.

Newsom: That’s it. I’ve got a three-year-old girl, one-year-old son, and now a new girl. You know dads with their daughters, so I’m ecstatic.

Tavis: Yeah. I’m glad you said that. When you and I first met years ago, you were single.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: Of course didn’t have kids at that time.

Newsom: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: How has that changed – I’m coming to “Citizenville,” just –

Newsom: No, I get it.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.

Newsom: Oh, no, I get it.

Tavis: How does being a father of young children in this world, in this society, at this time –

Newsom: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: – how does that impact –

Newsom: Well, I thought I had a prodigy. I watched my one-year-old daughter literally on my iPhone and iPad. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve called my wife and said, “You’ve got to come home. Check this thing out.” She’s sitting there, we’re mesmerized. We thought this is the one. She’s here.

I wanted to call out all the news crews. (Laughter) Watch my daughter. Then I just brought her into pre-preschool, three years old, looked around, and every single one of these kids were – (laughter) I’m like, maybe she’s not a prodigy after all.

Tavis: Right.

Newsom: She’s the best thing in the world but not a prodigy, because she’s wired differently. She’s growing up digital. Digital natives. You and I, of that age where we’re digital immigrants, learning this language. We’re not as comfortable.

But these brains are wired differently.

You can’t educate this generation like we’ve educated this last generation. You can’t frame a debate in terms of the engagement of government the way we have. They’re going online, you’re going online, Amazon, for example, you’re getting 24-hour service seven days a week.

You can buy your groceries and buy cars, et cetera. Then you go to the DMV and you’re literally coming across this analog world, where you’re frustrated, filling out one set of forms, go on another line, fill out another set of forms.

Because we’re dealing with 1970-era technology. We’re completely disconnected government and our ability to deliver effective services from the world my daughter’s growing up, and your daughter, and everybody’s sons and daughters are growing up in.

Tavis: So I know what you meant, parenthetically. You advanced past me to get married and to have kids. I’m still trying to bring up the rear. I’ve not gotten there yet on either front.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: But I was in a conversation at a dinner party not long ago and this issue came up. Half of the table was married with family, kids; the other half of the table not married. An interesting conversation ensued about whether or not now was a good time – one could argue that it was selfish on a certain level, but it was a real conversation, Gavin, about whether or not these are dangerous times to be raising kids.

Why it is or how it is that one finds the hope that one can raise a kid successfully, given all that one is up against in this society. Obviously with three babies, a new one on the way, you ain’t scared.

Newsom: No, I’m counting on it. You know what it does? Go back to the human side – the answer that I wanted to give but I was trying to connect the dot in the book – all of a sudden I’m not so into the situational values. You start out on a kid, you think sustainably.

You’re thinking long-term. All of a sudden your entire frame of reference changes. If you’re a politician, all you’re thinking is cable news networks, 24/7, putting a crowbar in the wheel of the other party, tripping them up to win the news cycle.

But when you have those kids you think in those generational terms, and those are the terms that built this great democracy, America. We were in the future business, always focusing on tomorrow and the next generation, investing in our lead.

We’ve lost sight of that, so short-termism, short-term thinking, it’s gotten us in trouble. When you have kids, you start thinking differently.

Now to your question. I’m much more optimistic about this next generation, because this is the first global generation. This generation, you’re raising kids that are more empathetic than any other generation in history.

These Millennials are volunteering more, they’re smarter than ever. IQ scores are through the roof. It’s harder to get into universities than ever. So there’s a civic engagement and there’s a capacity to appreciate other people’s points of view. Not just to tolerate diversity, but to begin to celebrate it, as we all must.

So I’m optimistic that this generation that they’re being born into is going to be the generation that’s ultimately going to build back that American spirit and dream.

Tavis: So we’ll connect, once again, to the text. The only way they do that is if we find a way to fix what is clearly a broken governmental system. At the heart of this book are five things that you lay out for how we can fix government.

It’s what everybody’s talking about, and why those who read this book are interested in reading it – because everybody wants to know how we can fix what is clearly a broken system.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me just go through these five and tee you up to talk about them.

Newsom: Right.

Tavis: Number one – government has to be transparent.

Newsom: Our default’s closed, isn’t it? Our default’s secrecy. We just noted the last few weeks all this friction and debate around the drone issue. President Obama, who’s leaned into the issue of transparency more than any previous president, is also defaulting back in this framework of secrecy.

It shows how difficult this is. So the principles of this new age, this age of collaboration, is about openness and transparency, which ultimately (unintelligible) trust.

If you’re not open, you’re not transparent, you’re still holding on to vaults of information, you’re not going to build that trust. What happens is we become more and more disengaged.

You see local elections here in Los Angeles, 12 percent of people showing up that are registered. It’s not even a headline, because it’s been a trend line for years. More and more disengagement, dissatisfaction, where people are just sick and tired of voting to have someone broadcast at them. So I think this is a fundamental principle of the new age.

Tavis: Before I move on to point number two, what would be the motivating factor for government to be transparent? Because when you put more out there, people know more. When they know more, they ask more questions.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: So there are costs, there are repercussions to being transparent, so why would any of these guys in Washington or Sacramento or anyplace else want to be more transparent?

Newsom: No, I talk about this in the book, my own struggles with it. The Freedom of Information Act, the press. Any time they ask for that information you know it’s tomorrow’s hit piece and headline.

So again, our default is secrecy. But it’s a world of hyper-transparency we’re living in. If Wikileaks didn’t resolve that question for folks – at the end of the day, there are no secrets. We’re living in a glass neighborhood, in a fishbowl, and technology, white hat hackers, the folks that are doing the right thing with hacking.

Then you’ve got sort of the other folks – they’re going to make sure that information gets free. So it’s either on your terms or someone else’s terms. We’ve got to change that default.

Tavis: I’m trying to move on to number two, but you keep saying things I want to pick up on. Let me go right quick to Wikileaks since you raised it, and obviously, you referenced it in the text.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: What was your view of Wikileaks? We know what those in our government thought about Wikileaks.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: What did you think about them?

Newsom: Well, it’s a reminder of the world we’re living in. But I thought, at the end of the day, government needs to be aerated. We need to be cleansed. The light of day is a healthy thing.

At the same time, there were correspondence that you want to be able to engage in conversations that are private so you can be more honest in those conversations.

My only concern about Wikileaks is that it may actually create a situation where people are less likely to say what they actually think in the context of their correspondence, at peril of these things being exposed and manipulated.

But I think ultimately, again my bias, openness and transparency; I ultimately think it’s raised the bar in terms of the likelihood that we’re going to be doing things more openly.

Tavis: So first point is how government has to be more transparent. Then you argue that we have to encourage people to use that data, everyday citizens, to use the data to create apps, devices, et cetera.

Newsom: I’ve been thinking a lot. This whole book came up with this fundamental idea, the notion of leadership. You think about it, my father used to talk to me when I was a kid; said, “Think about what Vaclav Havel,” the former president of Czechoslovakia, “Mandela, Gandhi and King all had in common at the peak of their influence.” You think, all right, pretty good lineup.

Tavis: Let me guess.

Newsom: Say it.

Tavis: They all went to jail.

Newsom: You got it – jail time. Well done. It’s a profound thought, isn’t it? The peak of their influence, they had something else. They didn’t have formal authority; they had moral authority – something more profound. You don’t need to be someone to do something.

You could argue Vaclav Havel and Mandela, when they became presidents of their respective countries, lost a little bit of that moral authority as they had to navigate the realities of this formal frame.

So my point of this is what about citizenship? What about active citizenship? None of us want to be treated as subjects. We don’t want to just be broadcast to – vote, and then have a two-year cycle of broadcasting, or a four-year.

We want to be actively engaged in an iterative process. So this whole idea of openness and transparent, putting up data, sort of unleashing the sunlight on the vaults of government, is all about active citizen participation.

Remarkable things happen when you provide access to information. People are able to do extraordinarily good things with it.

Tavis: This third theme of how to fix government is that we have to engage fellow citizens on their own terms or at their level.

Newsom: Yeah, and that’s the frame – Citizenville, Farmville. It’s an amazing world. If you told me someone seriously – and Mark Pincus is a friend of mine that started Zynga – that people would be farming virtually and spending money and hundreds of hours; in some cases, literally hundreds of hours a month online playing games, I never would have believed it.

But if you’re 18 to 24 years old, you spend now more time online playing games than you have, in many cases, in the classroom. So it’s about meeting people where they are in terms of these tools of technology. People are going with mobile devices now, increasingly social, localization of services, or in the cloud.

That’s where government needs to be. We’re still stuck, again, in this DMV model, and then we see our nieces and nephews designing websites and apps we never heard of. We’ve got to meet them there, meet our constituencies there.

Tavis: Your fourth point is that we need to allow people to bypass government and solve problems themselves.

Newsom: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’m a progressive Democrat and proud of the work I’ve done, but you know what? We sort of have this vending machine model of government, where you put in a dollar of taxes and we prescribe the services you get.

Police, fire, healthcare, education. If you don’t like what you get, you shake the machine; you kick the proverbial vending machine. You think about some Tea Party or the Occupy movement or just protests generally. To this notion instead of government as a platform, where we’re a convener, we’re a curator, and we’re a conduit.

So it’s all about the idea that you have more power in your hands now to do extraordinary things. So it’s about active citizen engagement. Not doing everything for you, but doing things with you.

Tavis: Your last point is that we have to somehow create a more innovative, entrepreneurial spirit inside of government. Now the innovative part I get. The entrepreneurial part scares me. I don’t want government to be in the business of making money. But I don’t want to misread your point.

Newsom: No, exactly. I come from a business background. I have about a thousand employees in the state. I say that not to impress you, but to impress this point. What I mean by entrepreneurialism is the trial and error. Good decisions, bad. You’ve got to lean in.

We’re so risk-averse in many ways because we’re scared to death of tomorrow’s headlines that we don’t say what we think. Privately we say one thing, publicly we say another.

We’re scared of trying new things, because there’s a risk that they won’t always work out. The one thing in the private sector that finds success in the private sector is this feedback loop – good decisions, bad. You fail forward fast. You learn from your mistakes.

What I mean by that is just being more entrepreneurial in terms of engagement, in terms of just the day-to-day governance within the bureaucracy of government itself.

Tavis: What have you learned – it’s only been a little while now, but what have you learned so far about this at the state level? You know this very well as a two-term mayor of San Francisco.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: But California, as you know, is bigger than so many countries.

Newsom: Yeah, ninth largest.

Tavis: Ninth largest. You’re the lieutenant governor. What are you learning about how convoluted this process is, given that you are the number two guy in California?

Newsom: Well, if you don’t like the way our world looks when you’re standing up, stand on your head and go local. It’s regions rising together. It’s this third or – you talk about a three-branch government. I’m for the people focused, about the people party. We need to engage people again.

The engagement tends to happen disproportionately at the local level. So most people are local optimists. The larger it gets, the more pessimistic we get. Proximity confirms or conforms some legitimacy in most cases.

So my whole framework is cities are the laboratories of innovation in this democracy. It’s laboratories of democracy. But it’s local government, it’s the city councils, it’s the neighborhoods within neighborhoods, it’s those blocks that connect people.

That’s why I talk about digitizing the town square and using these tools of technology, and making sure they’re available to everyone, dealing with the substantive issue of the divide that gives me some optimism.

But that’s the disconnect between the state and the inability to connect day-in and day-out that the local government, our local government, has that’s a benefit.

Tavis: How would you critique the Obama administration across the board in terms of its engagement with cities? Because one of the critiques against this administration is that like past administrations, they’ve relied too much on this notion of the states can decide.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: You see that with No Child Left Behind. States get to decide states’ rights rather than bypassing those states and going to municipalities. I’ve been asked a thousand times, “Tavis, I’ve heard your critiques about the president with regard to unemployment and poverty, et cetera. Name one thing he could have done differently.”

Well, for starters, when he passed the stimulus package, rather than sending that money to the states, if you had sent that money right to the cities it would have gotten to the people who are most – not that folk in suburbs aren’t hurting, or folks in rural areas are hurting as well.

But that money could have gone right to the places where people are hurting the most. That’s just one example of why cities are important as a delivery system, et cetera, et cetera. But just grade for me how you think the administration has done on its relationship with mayors, with cities.

Newsom: Oh, boy, you expressed my bias, right? Coming from local government.

Tavis: That’s why I asked.

Newsom: No, amen. So I agree with 100 percent of what you just said. You’ve got to disintermediate and you’ve got to go where folks are directly. We get lost in this clay layer at the state level, and again, it’s difficult for things to pass down.

Then you get all these prescriptive rules, and by the time it gets to local government our hands are tied and we have no ability to really deliver on a lot of the promises and people’s expectations.

So I think you’re 100 percent right. What I will critique is this. I’m a supporter of the Obama administration, and for the grace of God go any of us with the hands of Congress that are tied every single day, its inability to navigate.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Newsom: But that said, I wish he was governing like he campaigned. You think about the campaign in 2008, 35,000 self-organizing communities coming together. Extraordinary thing. It’s the spirit of this book.

I would love to see that translate as a governing philosophy, not just a campaigning philosophy. That truly would enliven this notion that you talk about, this bottom-up, this community organizing that truly can transcend and transform this country.

Tavis: So the way the system works, as you well know, is that cities look to states, states look to the federal government. We all know, as we sit here now, who knows, as we sit here today, later this week, the government could shut down.

Sequestration could kick in just a matter of days from where we are right now in this conversation, so that we know the states are not going to be getting in the years ahead from government what they have been accustomed to getting from government.

So if the states don’t get it, they surely aren’t going to pass it on to the cities. So what happens?

Newsom: Well, that’s my argument. You’ve got to deal with reality, right? There’s a treasure trove of capacity that exists latent in individuals and citizens, but we’ve been inert. Again, things are being done to us, not with us. There’s remarkable capacity that people have – unlimited, untapped, even unknown for most people, to do extraordinary things.

It’s not just about financial capital, it’s about human capital, and it’s about people forming new connections, seeing things differently. So I want to deal with that reality. I’m going to argue for the ideal. But in the absence of its manifestation, I want to create a different construct of active participation, and folks getting to do things in partnership with government, that government used to do exclusively, but no longer is committing to doing today.

Tavis: I saw some interesting comments you made the other day, Gavin, on the – I keep saying Gavin. You’re the lieutenant governor.

Newsom: Say it. I’m called everything.

Tavis: We’ve been friends for so long. (Laughter) I want to say Lieutenant Governor Newsom. I saw a piece on Politico where you were reported the other day talking specifically about poverty, and I’m paraphrasing your point.

But you made the point that poverty is going to be our greatest regret, not tackling poverty. So the question relative to Citizenville is how does poverty complicate this process of citizen engagement when poor people lack, obviously, resources, opportunity, time?

By access, I mean Internet access, et cetera. How does poverty complicate this process?

Newsom: Significantly. The digital divide has hardly been closed, though it has been mitigated substantially by the cost of these devices dropping significantly, and I’ll give credit to the Obama administration. They leaned in with the stimulus, about $7.2 billion, to begin to address – there’s still a long way to go, but begin to do more.

So it certainly does. But look, this whole idea of democracy, you cannot have a vibrant democracy without a vibrant middle class. You’ve got to have the ability, that ladder, to be well-established, that foundation, where people can move up and feel that they have a stake in the game.

It’s resources, sure, but it’s also resourcefulness. People need to feel that there’s a quality of engagement, a quality of imagination, that their lives matter, have meaning, and it’s connected to the whole.

As people become more and more segregated in terms of that mind-set, less and less engaged in terms of their participation of their community, the more likelihood democracy ultimately is going to suffer and collapse on itself.

So these things are profoundly important, and the issues of poverty remain profoundly important. That’s why again, I hold on to cities. In my town, if I may indulge, this $9 minimum wage – been there, done that. San Francisco, $10.55.

Universal healthcare? Well, been there, done that. We already fully implemented universal therapy, San Francisco. We’ve got paid sick leave. We also have done some things on preschool that are a model in the country, full universal preschool.

These things work. By the way, these progressive, anti-poverty principles have built a stronger economy, not just a stronger middle class. San Francisco is outperforming almost any city in the state of California. In many ways we’re the right’s worst nightmare because we’re proving them wrong. They can’t just assume these principles and values are wrong.

Tavis: To your point about the minimum wage, why – I hate that term, “minimum wage.” It ought to be a living wage –

Newsom: Living wage.

Tavis: – not a minimum wage. But that’s exactly what it is. Why has your party, the Democrats in Washington, the Democrat as president in the White House, why in the first term were they not more aggressive about that?

The last time the president talked about minimum wage, increasing the federal minimum wage, he talked about $9.50. In his State of the Union address, he’s dropped down to $9 now.

So once again, I love the guy, but I keep saying he’s negotiating against himself. He started at $9.50, now he’s down to $9, and the debate hasn’t started. Now, at least, to my mind, at least, the president has raised the issue now so the Democrats don’t have to be mum about raising it anymore.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: But why have the Democrats been so milquetoast and so spineless – my words, not yours – about pushing for an increase in this wage?

Newsom: It’s the old adage – you want move a mouse, you’ve got to move the cheese. You’ve got to change the incentives. We incent bad behavior, we don’t incent good behavior. We get reelected with the results – look at California.

I love my state and we are turning the corner, but we all get reelected with 9.8 percent unemployment, 1.8 million people not working in this place. Stone throw away from where we are, Imperial County, 25.5 percent unemployment, and we all get overwhelmingly elected.

So there’s no reward sometimes for these kinds of good behaviors. By the way, $10.55 is one cent off where it would be in 1961, adjusted.

Tavis: That’s right. That’s right.

Newsom: It is getting closer to approximating a living wage – closer, not there. But look, at the end of the day, you’re right – it’s important the president set the standard, and it’s the old adage, the biggest risks – Michelangelo said this – is not that we aim too high and miss it, it’s that we aim too low and reach it.

So I’d like to see some stretch goals, and I’d like to see that capacity of the mind to think beyond where it is today, because once a mind is stretched, you know and I know it never goes back to its original form.

So I’d like to see some more aggressive leadership on this and a lot of other things. It’s again, leadership that matters, not the quarreling. Leaders aren’t leading, we’re quarreling.

Tavis: Speaking of leaders, you are part of the leadership team in this state as lieutenant governor of California, and for so many years, and you know this as well as I do, better than I do, given the roles that you’ve played in this state as a leader.

For years, what happened in California politics – how might I put this – either cast a long shadow or a long sunbeam across the country.

Newsom: Yeah.

Tavis: What happened in our politics cast a long shadow or a long sunbeam. Another way of saying California was a leader. The Golden State was a leader. So whatever happened here had a major impact across the country. Is that still the case?

Newsom: It is in some respects, but you’re right, we were a state of dreamers, of doers, of entrepreneurs and innovators, priding ourselves on being on the leading and cutting edge of new ideas. There was that pioneering spirit, the coast of dreams.

Tavis: Our education system was the best in the nation.

Newsom: Best in the nation. Infrastructure, our research and development second to none, education, absolutely right. Not just higher ed, which still is the conveyor belt for talent in this state and for our nation, but K through 12.

But we lost – you know what we started to do? We started resting on our laurels. We stopped investing in those engines of growth and opportunity. We started taking, frankly, things for granted.

That’s what we’ve got to reimagine again, is we’ve done a good job in California, and I give Governor Brown all the credit in the world, and the Democratic leadership for getting the state back into balance.

We’ve done a good job of being solvent. We’ve got to get back to greatness, not just in the state but this nation, and focus again on the spirit and pride that connects people from different backgrounds, geographically, coastal, inland, north, south, the whole thing.

Focus again on this notion again of citizenship. That one thing that should bind every single one of us together, and elevate this notion of expectation and greatness.

Tavis: Every time I talk to Gavin Newsom, and I’ve been doing that for a lot of years now, I always take note of what the title is that he’s holding when he comes to see me, because there’s always a good chance that the next time I see him he will be having a different title.

So today he’s lieutenant governor of California. I don’t think that’s the last title he will hold in this state or in this nation. His name, once again, Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California. His new book is called “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.” Lieutenant Governor Newsom, always, sir, an honor to see you.

Newsom: Hey, thanks so much. Great to be here.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on.

Newsom: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm