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SAN FRANCISCO — Two former big-city mayors — a pair who still wield a significant amount of clout — took on the convergence of politics and tech at a rather unlikely place today: a cloud computing conference.

At BoxWorks, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) and former Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (D) stressed that bringing private sector innovation to government is a huge and ongoing challenge.

Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, didn’t hold back on his critique of the political system today, referring to government as “one-size-fits-all soul-crushing conformity” and an “assembly line machine.” He’s certainly far less optimistic then he used to be, before the scandals and painful partisan maneuvering.

However, Newsom made it very clear that he hasn’t given up on politics. Far from it. Newsom recently kicked off the fundraising process to run for reelection as lieutenant governor, a position he’s held since 2010.

Government ‘de-geniuses you’

Newsom kicked off his talk with a familiar story of a politician who inspired cries of “yes, we can” during the election campaign. Once elected to office, this politician, this man of the people, becomes a slave to top-down bureaucracy.

Newsom’s rather Shakespearean-sounding description for serving in office? “The constraints of formal authority de-geniuses you.”

Ever the statesman, Newsom does not name President Barack Obama when telling this tale, but the reference is fairly clear. “The bottom-up candidate can become a top-down president,” he said.

On the other hand, this very same politician took advantage of a range of new platforms and social networking tools to curb people’s apathy. Newsom believes politicians will increasingly use these tools while in office and change the culture of government.

“Technology can provide a platform of engagement… active [and] not inert citizenship,” he said.

Newsom and Fenty offered a number of ways that technology will slowly shift the status quo in D.C.:

  • The collaborative, open-source, open-data movement is already beginning to take off on a local and national stage.
  • New online platforms, like Twitter, Change.org, and Causes.org can inspire a good deal more civic participation and activism.
  • Politicians are reading tweets; they are more answerable to the communities they represent. (Although Newsom stressed that politicians ultimately need the strength of conviction to make a decision. “You can’t tweet a constitution,” he said.)
  • Innovators in the private sector may throw their energies into politics. Fenty hopes that young and successful tech entrepreneurs like Box chief executive Aaron Levie and Palantir cofounder Joe Lonsdale will run for office someday.
  • New education technology companies like Khan Academy and Coursera are bringing innovation to schools. One of his better soundbites — Newsom said that until recently, “the last great innovation in education was chalk.”
  • Open-source technologies are forging a new feeling of community; as Newsom puts it, “of connected fate.”
  • Crowdsourcing technologies are also encouraging participation in causes and/or activities. Newsom said that America is the 138th country in the world when it comes to voter participation.

The nature of leadership

Newsom and Fenty began their careers in politics with idealistic aspirations. Both rose very quickly through the ranks. Newsom was California’s youngest mayor in 100 years; Fenty was elected four years later in 2007, D.C.’s youngest-ever mayor.

These days, Newsom is still in politics, but he’s also a familiar face at tech conference and events. He is often spotted at Silicon Valley’s mecca for futurists, Singularity University. Meanwhile, Fenty has joined venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and is working closely with entrepreneurs from portfolio companies like Lyft and Box.

When he was first elected in D.C., Fenty asked for leadership advice from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and other political luminaries. He received the same feedback time and time again: Hire smart people.

But Newsom said he would offer completely different advice today. Politicians need to do far more than recruit a talented team.

“It’s not just about hiring a finite group within your organization,” said Newsom. “It’s about connecting to remarkable intelligence outside your organization [and] technology can provide that platform.”

Newsom understands that it’s difficult for people to trust politicians. He claims to support radical openness and transparency. Do you think new technologies can make a difference in our local and national political system. Let us know in the comment section below?

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