Democratic Accountability Made as Simple as an App

The California Report Card is a growing, grassroots tool for individual citizens to make their government officials listen.


Ken Goldberg, Bart Nagel

Democracy kind of blows but it's the best we've got, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. Researchers with the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative at the University of California are trying to make it a little better. They're working on a project called the California Report Card (CRC), a truly grassroots tool that provides individual citizens with a quick, clear channel to communicate ideas to politicians and a platform to rank the government's performance.

Ken Goldberg, an inventor, artist, and Berkeley professor who's the brains behind the CRC tells Reason that one of the project's underlying ideas comes from his work in robotics: "The faster your feedback cycle in a robotics system is, the more stable the core is and, essentially, the more effective a system can be." He thinks the same can be applied to statecraft.

The laboratory in which he's testing this idea is the state of California, particularly through the office of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a notable tech-optimist who's embraced the project. The report card—launched in January and currently boasting input from over 9,000 individuals, providing over 30,000 points of feedback on a range of topics, such as the cost of higher education and the implementation of Obamacare—is an online platform that's as intuitive as any smartphone app. It allows citizens to rank the government's performance on key political issues on a scale from "A+" to "F" and submit additional issues they consider important. The system organizes the results by self-reported county location. 

California Report Card

So far, the state has gotten middling grades in all six subjects Goldberg's team picked for the project's first iteration. For example, on "laws and regulations regarding recreational marijuana," residents of the golden state gives its public servants a "C" average. Plumas and Inyo counties voted roughly proportionally, but were on opposite ends of the spectrum: The former gave an "A+" while the latter gave an "F."

This kind of particularized, daily expression of people's (dis)satisfaction is valuable, explains Goldberg, because politicians really do "want to have a dialogue with the public." It's a lesson he says he learned while establishing a similar system, Opinion Space, for the State Department five years ago.

The problem is that the dialogue is infrequent, if it exists at all. The last time Californians had the opportunity to vote directly on marijuana—in that case to legalize recreational consumption—was 2010, and it was narrowly defeated. It isn't likely to show up again until 2016, essentially deflating the people's democratic engagement of that issue for six years. To use Goldberg's metaphor, our public sphere is operating like an inefficient machine. The government is failing to accept timely information from voters, and this occurs to the detriment of our society.

Crowd-sourced intelligence has proven itself beneficial to plenty of enterprises, and given the voting-like behavior millions of daily active U.S. users engage in when they click the "like" button on Facebook or contribute wisdom to the stars-and-blurbs reviews on Yelp, one would think Americans vigorously review elected leaders through the voting booth, too. But, despite billions spent to get out the vote, only about 57 percent of eligible voters bothered to exercise that right in the last two presidential election. Turnout at state and city elections, which arguably have a far more direct impact on constituents, tends to be dismally low. The report card isn't a substitute for voting, but in an ever more tech-centric America, it is a complement that can allow a greater number of Americans to flex some democratic muscle and have a say in the performance of their representatives.

Other complements to voting do exist, but Goldberg considers letters and emails to be "pretty clumsy." Appropriating something like Yelp for this project wouldn't have fit well, because list-type reviews, like emails, quickly become cumbersome and impossible to actually sift through. The same goes for easily-gamed online petition systems like or President Barack Obama's own We the People site and the now-defunct (which Goldberg says "was considered a failure" because it was taken over by special interests who were "bombarding that site with tens of thousands of inputs. … A classic example of exactly what we were trying to counter"). The CRC, by contrast, employs more nuanced statistical models and filters that ensure popular issues rise to the top in a clear way, but also keeps human researchers on watch for users trying to manipulate the results through multiple votes and other tricks. Additionally, the system allows people to see the average grade as soon as they've voted, and subsequently allows them to then change their own answers. It's a decision that Goldberg describes as "controversial, because you allow people to be biased," but it ultimately allows the report card, through machine learning, to remove the effects of this social influence bias.

A big part of the project is ensuring that unlike "opinion polls, surveys, and focus groups" which Goldberg believes "may produce valuable information, but … are costly, infrequent and often conducted at the convenience of government or special interests," the CRC continues to grow as a grassroots tool for individual citizens to tap into their "collective intelligence."

It's already shown signs of success on that front. The dominant issue to come out of the report card's first run is disaster preparedness, which wasn't even on researchers' list. But a huge number of  people spoke up and that's where Newsom will refocus some of his effort. Newsom's office tells Reason that the CRC's next iteration, which will debut in this fall, will pose more in-depth questions to better determine how Californians want disaster preparedness to be improved. It may not be a sexy, headline-grabbing, partisan issue, but frankly, it seems good to get politicians away from legislating around those kinds of topics.

Goldberg says that he's currently incorporating an automatic translator, so that California's sizeable Spanish-speaking population can also participate in this democratic exercise with ease, and that his team is beginning to work with others from New York University to Uganda to further implement the report card. He notes that it's "it's still a prototype, a research project" and "not a magic bullet," but that we can only learn more about it through further testing.

How much of an influence this type of medium should have on shaping policy is a question that is just now emerging. Nevertheless, given the near-omnipresence of and emphasis on data-analyzing and social media-style constant communication, it's almost a surprise that America's public servants have lasted this long without something like the CRC, and it seems that those public servants who are ignorant of their own constituents' wishes won't last long without warming up to these new channels of accountability. 

NEXT: Two Former Utah AGs Nabbed for Corruption, Immigration Activist/Journalist Detained, Yellen Keeping Fed Policies Loose: P.M. Links

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  1. Add a CLICK HERE TO DONATE button to the app and the politicians might pay attention to it.

  2. Democracy kind of blows but it’s the best we’ve got, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

    I beg to differ. Giving a bunch of unrelated idiots control over my life for no other reason that they dropped out of a vagina within a certain lineage or geographical location seems no different to me than giving control of it to a Porphyrogennetos or a Bourbon — only at least under the Bourbon system, the delegation of authority is relatively straightforward and can be held somewhat accountable.

    Far easier to depose a monarch than to depose a whole people. The dirty secret of the 20th century is that its bloody history has been that of a series of attempts to depose or crown the sovereign people. Some of these attempted coups have been more successful than others, and in some cases these decoronations have been relatively bloodless: arguably, “democratic” post-war Europe is itself a result of the suppression rather than the allowance of democratic sovereignty.

    1. So… you want a monarch? K, how about me?

      1. I believe his point was that if you don’t like the monarch you can hang him/her. Harder to accomplish with mob rule.

        1. Give this man a dollar.

          1. Give him two.

      2. Sure, if you’re into public effigies and guillotines.

        1. Sure, if you’re into public effigies and guillotines.

          Again, I say, dueling as a legitimate political device needs to be resurrected.

          They needn’t always be to the death or require the use of weapons, but the ability for an individual to trump the will of the majority with his own two hands seems like a quaint notion that shouldn’t have fallen by the wayside.

          K Street would be a lot more interesting.

      3. No, you’re weak and stupid.

      4. You misspelled moron, moron.

  3. Meh. Just seems like another way for politicians to get more data to use in their pandering efforts.

    1. Well, that too. And on another level, it just seems like another way for progressives to further inflate their already disproportionately large influence over the political class. bleh

  4. Old people say wha?

    1. “Something about a damn box and using your finger, sonny.”

  5. Personally, I’d rather not get any closer to ‘direct democracy’; the voters’ desires are likely to be ‘more free shit’ at my expense.

    1. It’s so cute how you pretend to be one of the “makers.”

      1. People who aren’t Marxist parasites usually are.

        1. You’re typing to a parasite wall.

      2. Tony|7.15.14 @ 5:37PM|#
        “It’s so cute how you pretend to be one of the “makers.””

        People on three continents have food on their plated because of me, you slimy piece of shit.

      3. Some of us actually are. Here more than most places.

    2. Unfortunately we are already headed diwn that road. Of course it can’t continue forever. Economic rules and whatnot.

  6. So, I was reading today that the latest Snowden docs show that the NSA has developed tools for altering online polls, social media, making things go viral, etc.

    Don’t know why I thought of that just now.

  7. These guys aren’t thinking big enough. How about an app that lets every voter choose his or her own government. If you’re a liberal, why should you be governed by an immigrant-hating Bible-clinger who can’t see the plain truth about global warming? If you’re a conservative, why should you be governed by any-kind-of-union-loving, big-spending, Constitution-ignoring commie? If you’re a libertarian, why should you be governed by people who don’t accept individual rights?

    Let everyone pick the government they want, like they do with auto insurance, trading off costs and benefits. Crimes would still be punished, in the courts of the victim’s government. Civil disputes between individuals with different governments would be settled by a neutral third government’s courts, or private arbitration if agreed upon.

    1. The best compromise is to have a libertarian government. Then people who want to have lots of social services and live in a progressive society can pay too much for insurance and buy into a social services plan. The people who want to have religious based laws can just live their lives according to those laws. Both groups just can’t accept other people choosing not to live like them, but with libertarian law, live and let live.

  8. Six Californias — heading to the November 2016 ballot. It’s got my vote, even though I’ll no doubt end up in one of the liberal enclaves… It still beats being ruled from Sacramento.

  9. The survey is filled with all sorts of fail. First, you grade A-F for “Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)”. What does an A grade mean exactly? I don’t like ACA, and if people can’t sign up for it, great, so A+?
    It says stuff like “Raising the California minimum wage is a necessary step to ensure Californian families have a decent standard of living and their children access to education and opportunity. How would you grade California’s minimum wage standard?” If I disagree with that statement and don’t think there really should be a minimum wage, do I give it an F? But then does he interpret that as meaning I think it should me much higher?
    Just full of progressive-leaning fail.

  10. Ooooh, great. Now what about the rest of the country?

  11. Underdamped systems are unstable.

    1. I believe you’re on to something! Especially if they can be auto-excited.

  12. If there’s any question who the makers are and who the leeches are. Just ask a random group of people if they support a government shutdown. The makers always say “yes”, the leeches always say “no”.

    I say bring on the off switch.

  13. I think a phone app that transmits a signal to a selected politician who represents would be a good idea. If on some issue – say the debt – the ‘stop doing this shit’ group outvotes the ‘give me free shit’ by some margin, then a signal is sent to the neck collar of the given pol. An electrical shock is applied. The government may shrink under this regime.

  14. Anyone else see the potential for abuse here? This is just another digital medium, like voting machines, that can be compromised by a hacker who answers to the highest bidder, and then used to manipulate results. Imagine if it becomes widely popular, who desirable this would be as a propaganda tool and used either by the politicians own people or the opposition or activist party to enhance perceived approval or disapproval of whatever policy they want to target. No thanks!

  15. Interesting idea, horrible execution.

  16. You constitution advocate crazies out there stop undermining your government bureaucrat betters’ noble efforts to do good. And I mean RIGHT NOW!

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