New platform allows California residents to grade state performance

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A new platform released Tuesday intends to give California residents a better opportunity to express political opinions to the state government.

Created by UC Berkeley researchers and the office of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the platform lets residents voice their opinions, asking them to assign letter grades to issues ranging from the state’s implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to the affordability of California state colleges and universities.

Residents can view the distribution of grades on each issue given by fellow users online as well as the number of residents from their city who use the platform.

The goal, Newsom said in an interview with The Daily Californian, is to generate a nuanced conversation and raise awareness for present and future issues in California government. Newsom and Ken Goldberg, project leader of the California Report Card and a campus professor of engineering, plan to review the responses and present the data during a public forum to be held on campus March 20.

“There is a lack of true transparency in the system,” Newsom said. “I don’t blame anybody; it’s institutionalized. Technology can create a new platform of transparency. That’s the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do: Give people the power and tools to make constructive critiques.”

The California Report Card also lets residents suggest pressing issues of their own and grade the importance of others’ topics. Users whose issues are deemed most important by other users will be invited to meet with Newsom at the public forum in March.

“We would love to see thousands of people participating,” Goldberg said. “A really important thing is to engage people to consider political issues.”

Goldberg said the idea for the platform was introduced when he invited Newsom on campus to speak about his book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” which explores how the power of technology can transform American democracy and empower citizens.

Goldberg and Newsom have expressed interest in seeing this method used in other state governments or on college campuses, respectively.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than expressing a point of view and (not seeing change),” Newsom said. “You realize quickly that people really don’t care about your voice, and it’s quite demoralizing.”

There are, however, certain limitations to the platform. The distribution of respondents will not be a representative sample of all California residents, said Henry Brady, dean of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, adding that the website works as “a place to register your complaints or happiness.”

The website features elements from Opinion Space, a platform created by Goldberg that the U.S. Department of State uses to gather comments on foreign policy.

“It’s about being willing to listen to people,” Brady said. “It’s more about responsivity and less about transparency. I think it’s a good thing to be doing, but it has its limitations, just like everything.”

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.