In the summer of 2010, Joe Lonsdale and Matt Cook ’11 founded California Common Sense (CACS). Lonsdale, a Stanford alumnus and founder of Palintir Technologies, and Cook, at the time a Stanford senior, envisioned an agency that engaged the public about problems in the state government and possible solutions.
Current President Dakin Sloss recalled their purpose, “[they] wanted to create tools that would empower citizens to both understand the nature of our government and what was wrong with it and then actually take action based on that to fix the problem.”
The group, mainly composed of Stanford students and recent alumni, released a “transparency portal” on their website this summer. The portal provides visualizations on various areas of California government spending, allowing users to easily access data that previously often required tedious open-records requests.
When CACS asked for the records of the State of California’s expenditures last spring, Governor Brown’s office replied by calling their request so “onerous that the public interest served by not disclosing records clearly outweighs the public interest served by the disclosure of the records.” But this refusal by the Governor’s office did not dissuade the organization from pursuing transparency for the rest of the summer.
They tried again in July to request access to the government’s checkbooks, but were again denied. CACS reported in a press release that 85 percent of California government expenditure data was not reported in CALSTARS, a system designed to to serve the accounting needs of government agencies. The system was implemented in 1981, meaning that its capabilities are limited.
Sloss commented in a press release, “Sacramento is two hours away from the world’s foremost technological center, Silicon Valley. So how has our state government fall[en] so far behind? It’s embarrassing.”
Though Governor Brown’s office refused to release the State of California’s “checkbook,” other organizations and some assembly members have been responsive and helpful to their requests. Most recently, CACS released data concerning State Assembly staff pay. They found that salaries of Assembly personal staff were underreported by $2.75 million.
Thanks to help from Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, the story has caught the attention of the public at-large, and now even the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee are suing for access to the real Assembly staff pay records.
The organization has largely benefited from a strong network of blogs, media, and online pathways to disseminate its information. But word of mouth has certainly helped the organization as well, as has their endorsement from former Secretary of State George Schultz.
CACS is not done ruffling feathers. Nate Levine, Vice President and director of day-to-day operations, explained the group’s next project. “We will create an online eco-system where people can go and discuss stories that they find in the portal,” he stated, “and then it will allow them to take action by essentially writing a petition stating that they support changing that policy, and then we’ll have various action items that get triggered as the number of supporters increases.”
They hope the new forum will create a strong sense of citizen engagement and government receptiveness to the public’s concern. According to Levine, if certain amounts of citizens request action on a specific policy in the online forum, it will trigger an action item by California Common Sense, like custom analysis.
“This is really what Silicon Valley is about,” Levine stated, “Silicon Valley is all about developing great technology and finding ways to apply it to make revolutionary change in the world.”
When the group started in 2010, co-founder Matt Cook ’11 had recruited several Stanford undergraduate students to work for the agency that summer. CACS still maintains a staff largely of undergraduates or recent graduates, and they plan to continue using the Stanford network to their advantage.
Right now they are recruiting Stanford software engineers, researchers, publicists, and social media people for part-time internships or volunteer work or full-time jobs with the organization. This year two members will already be taking the year off from school to focus solely on the organization.
Sloss shared about their unique role in California politics: “I think a large part of what makes us unique is that we’re young people who are trying to work to fix our future,” stated Sloss. He also talks about taking their project to other states around the nation.
“The most important thing to see here is that we’re in a crucial time in not just California’s history but American history,” Sloss stated. He sees CACS as the “beginning of the real movement…to change fundamentally how our representative democracy is working…I call everyone to participate in whatever level they can.”