Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California and former mayor of San Francisco, sounds tired - but still in a hurry. Darting between meetings in Silicon Valley and Sacramento, Newsom tells me that it's long past time for government to embrace the opportunities presented by smartphones, social media, and Big Data. 

I spoke with Newsom as he was returning from a meeting at Cisco. As he said:

We have (leaders) in government who download a book to their Kindle in seconds, or order their groceries online. They understand the power of a 24/7 service, yet rather than adopting new technologies for their organization, we are patching old systems from the 1970s. These were great once, but now are becoming burdens.  

Newsom has an infectious optimism regarding technology's ability to improve government services and foster openness. "We need to learn and scale," he says of government.

The private sector is taking notice. Money, ideas and entrepreneurship are flowing into government at all levels. Not just to win big contracts or to promote immigration reform, but to use the very technologies that have changed homes and business to improve how government operates. 

Open Gov

Earlier this year, the Knight Foundation initiated the "Open Gov" challenge in order to, as the organization put it, "we sensed an opportunity to accelerate this nascent field and to help it develop solutions that serve defined needs."

Four months later, the foundation has just announced eight winners who will receive just over $3 million in funding. These include: 

  • Civic Insight: Providing up-to-date information on vacant properties so that communities can more easily find ways to make tangible improvements to local spaces.
  • GitMachines: Supporting government innovation by creating pre-configured tools that developers in government agencies can use to easily build new technology.
  • OpenCounter: Making it easier for residents to register and create new businesses by building open source software that governments can use to simplify the process.
  • Procure.io: Making government contract bidding more transparent by simplifying the way smaller companies bid on government contracts.

Toward A Government App Store

Businesses that have worked with government for years also realize how mobile technology, social media and even smartphone apps can improve the delivery of service.

Recently, I spoke with Maury Blackman, CEO of Accela, a Bay Area company that develops mobile apps specifically designed to streamline government activities and to make it easier for people to communicate with officials, get information, pay taxes and fees, access services and so forth.

"Services once done in-person or online are now shifting to the smartphone," Blackman told me. "Citizens expect around-the-clock access to government officials and services."

The Civic Cloud

Accela has also built a app platform it calls "the Civic Cloud," one designed to help government agencies and app developers work more closely with one another. The goal is to create smartphone apps for government agencies that thousands of local governments across the country could easily replicate.

If that effort is successful, developers would suddenly have access to a giant market. Meanwhile, government could offer improve service delivery, while citizens would get better roads, services and greater access to the government employees whose salaries they pay.

Such apps might include a location-based pothole-repair request service, or one that would let contractors submit permit requests from the field. It's not hard to see how such apps could scale across city and local governments around the country.

In his book Citizenville, Newsom writes: "In the private sector and in our personal lives, absolutely everything has changed over the last decade. In government, very little has." 

That finally may be about to change.