Students draft ballot initiative calling for a more tech-savvy government

The assignment David Lee gave San Francisco State University students in his American government class was straightforward: find examples of effective uses of technology in government. But the result has far exceeded his expectations. More than 150 of Lee's students have embarked on a grassroots volunteer campaign to get a measure added to the November ballot that would make it easier for the public to interact with San Francisco's city government online.

 David Lee talks to a student as they collect signatures to support a ballot measure

David Lee, adjunct professor of political science, speaks with his students at a signature drive in support of a ballot measure they wrote promoting the effective use of technology in city government.

"The classrooms of today are nothing like they were 30 years ago," said Lee, an adjunct professor of political science. "If you take the student experience and apply it to government, you see how far behind it is in terms of technology. How can we bring government to the people? That is what these students are working to figure out and make happen."

The students' proposed ballot measure, inspired by advances in technology they uncovered in other city governments, would require all public meetings to be streamed live online, allow members of the public to comment virtually and ensure that topics of particular interest are discussed at a specified time. If the measure passes, San Francisco would be the first city in the country to adopt all three of these policies, Lee said.

The class assignment, which took the form of an online collaboration among students, challenged them to develop the kind of legislation they would like to see implemented in San Francisco based on innovations in other cities. Lee said he was so impressed with the caliber of the final product that he showed it to some friends -- lawyers, politicians, policymakers -- who agreed it had merit and suggested bringing the class project into the real world.

"If you look at how few people participate at meetings at City Hall, it would shock most people," Lee said. "Part of it is that meetings are scheduled in the middle of the day, and often the item you came to hear isn't heard until much later than the appointed time. Then there's the cost of parking. All these things dissuade people from participating. So this idea is really appealing to a lot of people."

Requiring all San Francisco public meetings to be streamed online, Lee said, would make them widely accessible via cell phones, tablet devices and computers, with minimal investment. "The technology is already there in City Hall," Lee said. "It's really just about getting the public policy in place to make it happen."

The students also proposed creating a virtual space for members of the public to comment on agenda items in real time, with these comments incorporated into live discussions.

"Not only are we suggesting that people be able to watch their government in action, we are also suggesting that they have a voice and be able to participate in live virtual public testimony," Lee explained.

Finally, the measure would require that if more than 50 members of the public express an interest in a specific agenda item, it would get a "time certain" designation so that people can know when to show up for a meeting -- or when to stream it and comment online. This policy would help curtail the long waits that can deter participation, Lee said.

"If the public wishes to speak on a topic, they should be able to be heard in a timely manner," he added.

To be placed on the ballot, 10,000 signatures must be collected in support of the initiative by July 8, which will be done in part by Lee's students.

One student, Richard Lopez Albinana, who graduated on May 22 with a major in political science, said the policies outlined in the initiative have particular relevance on the hot topic of land use in the city.

"A lot of land-use decisions are happening without input from the people who are most affected by them," Albinana said. "With the cost of living and housing in particular increasing, I feel like we need to do this so people will be able to have their voices heard, especially about the kind of housing that works for them."

If the initiative makes it on the ballot, Lee said, the students' efforts will continue up until the November election -- months after his class has ended.

"This has really hit a nerve for them," he said. "For younger people who are so technology savvy, this combination of technology and passion for public service has stirred a lot of interest. They are seeing how something we talk about in the classroom and read about in articles can actually be applied in the real world to make change happen."

For Albinana, the project has offered valuable insight into how various policy issues are interconnected. "This project has impacted my perspective on how to find different solutions to problems," he said.

It's also been a meaningful experience for Lee -- the first time in 10 years of teaching at SF State that his students have engaged in a large-scale effort outside the classroom. "As educators, we aim to motivate our students to become active and engaged participants in our democracy," Lee said. "So this is something every teacher hopes for. I'm really proud."

For more information about the proposed ballot initiative, visit www.sfopengovernment.com

-- Beth Tagawa