Smart phone app lets residents rate government on what it is — and is not — doing

There are increasing calls for governments to use better technology to help listen to citizens.

Whether its the open government or open data movements, industry experts believe the Internet, smart phones and access to data will help two-way communications with governments at all levels.

Last month the state of California rolled out the California Report Card, a mobile app  that lets people grade issues and suggest issues for future report cards.

Current issues that can be voted on include healthcare, education, marriage equality, immigrant rights, and marijuana decriminalization.

It’s an initiative by the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative at University of California Berkeley and state Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom has written a book on reinventing government with digital technologies.

Newson and CITRIS staff will review the how version 1.0 is working out at a March 20 conference, which will guide improvements to version 2.0

One problem already recognized is that the survey may not be scientific — only those who chose to participate get to register their opinion, and its only available in English. According to a news release so far over 6,000 people from almost every county in the state have assigned over 20,000 grades to the state.

In the release Newsome said  the app “is a new way for me to keep an ear to the ground. This new app/website makes it easy for Californians to assign grades and suggest pressing issues that merit our attention. In the first few weeks, participants conveyed that they approve of our rollout of Obamacare but are very concerned about the future of California schools and universities. I’m also gaining insights on issues ranging from speed limits to fracking to disaster preparedness.”

How useful can it be? It depends. Governments that do public opinion polling may like it  because it saves them money. On the other hand a poll can be more scientific — and the more expensive the poll and the more questions, the more accurate it gets. To some degree that can be overcome by sheer numbers. A good poll in a state the size of California (which has a population the size of Canada) would include about 1,200 people.  A mobile app would far surpass that in responses.

Supporters also have to be aware that app polls can be tilted by campaigns (the Association of Citizens Against Widgets urging their members to get out and vote), which public opinion polls are immune against.

Still, it’s another tool. Elected officials will have to weigh how questions were asked, how many respondents there were and where they live.

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