Gavin Newsom and UC Berkeley Professor Ken Goldberg Grade the State

Scott Lucas | March 21, 2014 | Story Politics

California voters think that the state is barely getting by.

That's the takeaway from the results of the first round of the California Report Card, a polling project by a team led by UC Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (whose book Citizenville explored ideas to use high technology to produce more citizen engagement in politics).

The survey asked California residents to grade the state's performance across six policy areas, using a new design that allowed them to answer online and by smartphone. Over 7,000 people, in 53 of the state's 58 counties, responded and the results were released yesterday.

The state picked up some decent and some not-so-good grades: on implementation of Obamacare and marriage equality, voters gave it a B. On K-12 education quality, affordability of higher ed, access to state services by undocumented immigrants, and recreational marijuana, voters handed out C's.

The poll also asked respondents to suggest their own ideas for important issues facing the state, and had them rate the ideas of others. The team analyzed the issues suggested by users, and found four clusters on the voters' agenda: emergency preparation, urban issues like planning and gun control, fiscal questions like job growth and tax rates, and privacy concerns.

That's a finding that's already led to responses by the state.

Emergency preparation is not something that pops up on the political radar screen often at the state level, but Newsom says he's taking the results as a chance to call for the revitalization of an inter-agency working group that helps coordinate responses but was mothballed by Governor Jerry Brown. "I was convinced when I was mayor of San Francisco that there was going to be an earthquake. We were lucky there wasn't, but I tried to make emergency preparedness a top priority. We aren't doing that at the state level," said Newsom.

The poll wasn't a traditional randomly-selected survey, where people are asked questions over the phone. That means it's impossible to know statistically whether the results are representative of the state as a whole. But the methodology does represent a new and different way to think about gathering political information.

"We have this idea about collective intelligence—that a group can be smarter than each of its members," said Goldberg. "We do a pretty good job applying that to predict whether markets go up or down and who will win the Academy Award. Why can't we use it to enhance government?"

In many ways, the Report Card belongs less to the world of survey research and more to an emerging set of digitally-enabled deliberative practices, including San Francisco's own experiments with participatory budgeting. "This is the same as what happened to the music industry, the publish world, or the taxi cab monopoly," said Newsom. "What was once a broadcast hierarchy is now networked, collaborative, and side-by-side."

In the final analysis, it might not be as strange to find a professor of robotics collaborating with Newsom on the poll. "After all," said Goldberg, flashing a slide of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, "the idea of robots getting into California politics is not new."

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