In the two months since the California Report Card (CRC) project has been up and running, state government already is noticing results and taking action.

Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, a co-developer of CRC alongside the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative at UC Berkley, is using feedback generated from the report card to help guide his political agenda. Specifically, he announced March 20 that he's making disaster preparedness a top priority based on feedback generated from the report card.

“Frankly, I didn’t see that coming at all, I don’t think any of us did,” Newsom told Government Technology, referencing the fact that disaster preparedness rose to the top of the report card as one of the public's key concerns. “It really underscored, from my perspective, a real opportunity to not only meet that concern and critique of sorts, which is, ‘What the hell is the state of California doing to assist municipalities robustly as well as citizens in disaster preparedness?’ [but also to] commit to a more robust dialogue with our emergency service directors, and with counties and cities and citizens directly in terms of disaster preparedness."

One of the things that surprised Newsom was that this issue was not geographically isolated, but rather “up and down the state, so many people expressed concern and so many people expressed frustration by their lack of understanding and appreciation, and also their legitimate concerns on the state’s inability to communicate directly to citizens what our disaster strategies and preparedness plans are,” Newsom said.

A Quick Turnaround From Data Collection To Action

CRC launched on Jan. 28 as a means of providing a more structured environment to elicit feedback from California residents, but it also can take on feedback from those who live outside the state. It is a website, www.californiareportcard.com, that can be accessed via desktop and mobile platforms to allow people to assign a grade – “A+” through “F” – to rate the performance on how the state is handling key policy issues. It also allows users to suggest their own ideas and rate the submitted ideas of others.

“The whole system is designed to structure and streamline communications with government leaders so they get timely feedback, information and input from constituents,” Ken Goldberg, faculty director of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative and a professor at UC Berkley, told Government Technology
 
Goldberg said this tool is designed to help break voter apathy because it gives them a more direct avenue to communicate with officials and to see the results of their feedback immediately. The site offers users immediate feedback in the form of a median grade once users apply their own grades to issues. 

The site launched with the following six policy areas, on which users were asked to provide grades:

  • Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)
  • Quality of K-12 public education
  • Affordability of state colleges and universities
  • Access to state services for undocumented immigrants
  • Laws and regulations regarding recreational marijuana
  • Marriage rights for same-sex partners
After grading on these issues, users can then submit in a free-text form their own ideas and key policy areas they think the government should be addressing. Finally, those ideas are offered up to other users to evaluate, through the same letter-grade assignment. The ideas will serve as the basis for future policy issues that might be posted for general evaluation in addition to helping to guide the political agenda of government officials. 
 
“They get access to have their voices heard,” Goldberg said. “And they’re engaged in the process because they are looking at what other people are saying and considering. Part of our goal is to engage the public because there has been a lot of apathy. If they send an email, who knows if it will ever get read.”
 
Goldberg said it was a surprise to see something like disaster preparedness rise to the top as a key issue residents were interested in. Other issues of concern that have surfaced and are gaining traction among users include fracking, drought issues and the speed limits imposed on truck drivers. 

There is a “range of different things people are bringing up,” Goldberg observed. “What we are looking for are the novel ideas that people are suggesting.”

A More Digestible Format For Data Analysis

On the government side, it helps better organize the feedback the public is providing. Rather than having to sift through a deluge of emails or postings to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, the information is provided in a more digestible format.

Additionally, Goldberg noted that this offers an advantage over using social media to solicit feedback.
 
“There are so many things out there that you can post to,” Goldberg noted, saying that the data ultimately becomes lists and may not be in an actionable form. He added that social media also are “very prone to disruption” through negative commentary and the ever-present issue that discussions can be derailed and hijacked through that disruption, leaving potentially good ideas to languish in obscurity.