Grading the State

A mobile app closes the communication gap between citizens and their representatives.

Information technology holds great potential for giving politicians and civic leaders a more nuanced, interactive, and frequent read on the public mind, writes California’s lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom in his new book Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. Last September, at a CITRIS symposium titled “Can ‘Open Data’ Improve Democratic Governance?” Newsom and Ken Goldberg hatched a plan to create an application that would use the latest mobile technology to address an important communication gap in the State’s government.

The California Report Card, or CRC, allows participants to quickly grade the state’s performance on a handful of subjects, indicate the importance of those issues to them, and suggest new subjects and evaluate others’ suggestions for issues to be included in the next report card. Participants can also see how their grades compare to other participants’ views.

The CRC stems from an earlier collaboration between Goldberg and the U.S. State Department. The online platform Opinion Space attracts volunteers from around the world to suggest, evaluate, and explore insights about U.S. foreign relations. CRC has a simpler design and a much lower threshold for participation, says Goldberg, co-director with Camille Crittenden of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative. Users are not asked to identify themselves beyond their zip code, and even that is optional: anyone can log on and submit grades for the issues at hand. The user interface is straightforward, allowing citizens to provide feedback to the government–and data for Goldberg and his collaborators–in just a couple of minutes.

The California Report Card allows users to assign grades to the State of California on timely issues.
The California Report Card allows users to assign grades to the State of California on timely issues. Credit: Irene Chen/Daily Californian

The app instructs participants to grade the State of California on “six timely issues.” The current report card addresses healthcare, education, marriage equality, immigrant rights, and marijuana decriminalization. Users position a dot on a slider with “A+” at one end and “F” at the other. Once a grade is assigned, the average grade for that item is revealed. When a user has assigned grades on all six issues, she moves into the discussion section, where more specific questions posed by other users pop up and can be graded as well. These are marked on two criteria: 1) their importance for inclusion on the next report card and 2) the state’s current performance on the issue. For example, one question proposed by a user reads: “Located in earthquake country, California will inevitably experience large, devastating seismic events. How would you grade California’s seismic preparedness?” Assigning an “A” suggests the user thinks the state is doing a good job preparing for the Big One, an “F” that she thinks the state is not well prepared. Then the user evaluates the importance of the question, again on a scale of A to F. If she thinks the state is falling short, but it’s not very important, that might not indicate the subject needs a lot of attention. But if the state is doing badly and users collectively deem the subject very important, that should be a wakeup call, says Sanjay Krishnan, a graduate student of Goldberg’s and the programmer for the project. “The really interesting questions are the ones that lots of users find very important and on which they also agree that the state is underachieving,” says Krishnan.

Some of those discrepancies are predictable, others less so. “One surprise,” says Brandie Nonnecke, CRC’s project manager, “is that disaster preparedness is emerging as a dominant concern of Californians.” People across the political spectrum might disagree about immigration or whether marijuana should be legal, but they tend to agree that the state needs to prepare for disasters. “It’s a really important idea, and the fact that it emerged from participants’ comments suggests the power of the platform for facilitating constituent feedback,” Nonnecke says.

Whereas Opinion Space was programmed in Flash, the CRC employs HTML5, a markup language that works well across platforms, including mobile devices, says Krishnan. “The app works on both laptops and smartphones, but is specifically optimized for the mobiles,” he says. “We thought focusing on smartphones would give the project a broader reach. If someone is surfing on their phone and sees a tweet about the project they don’t have to remember it and go home and fire up their laptop. The barrier to entry is much lower.”

Focusing on mobile platforms presented challenges, though. “From a programming point of view, making an app that works well on mobile devices that move in and out of network connectivity was harder than I anticipated. It required that we keep things very simple.”

That simplicity had other design advantages, too. The application’s intuitive interface is one explanation for its early success. As of mid March, the CRC has about 7,000 users from counties across the state.

Outreach has been a major part of the project, says Nonnecke, who describes her role of project manager as “making sure the moving parts keep moving.” At this point, she said, that mostly means “reaching out to more remote areas of the state.” So far, 53 of California’s 58 counties are represented. Nonnecke has been calling public organizations in still un- and under-represented counties. When she reaches a librarian, for example, she explains the aim of the work and the importance of broad representation. “For the most part,” she says, “people really want to have their voices heard. The underrepresented counties are often a little out of the way and sometimes feel their opinions get lost.”

The biggest and perhaps most hopeful insight so far, says Krishnan, was how little polarization has been reflected in people’s responses. “On all six issues there were no statistically-significant differences between regions. When you phrase the question as a grading problem, people from all different parts of the political spectrum tend to agree on what is really important and on how the state has performed.”

On Thursday, 20 March, CITRIS hosted “The California Report Card: Learning from a New Platform for Civic Engagement,” a forum featuring Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Professor Ken Goldberg, Dr. Marina Gorbis, Director of the Institute of the Future Director, and Professor Henry Brady, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy. The forum was webcast live and is archived for viewing on the CITRIS YouTube channel.

by Gordy Slack