Directions from Silicon Valley to Sacramento: travel about 30 miles east, 40 miles north, and then 50 years into the past. Or at least that is how it appears. Despite living in the digital era, information is a rare commodity in our state’s capital, and any that exists is closely guarded by a culture of secrecy that seems to permeate California’s government. We know our state is ill, but we lack the data to make a diagnosis.
California Common Sense (CACS), a non-profit started at Stanford last year, hopes to pull back the curtain by using technology to promote government transparency. It began by trying to understand how the state government operates and immediately faced a barrier: it needed to know how the state’s thousands of agencies are organized.But no such organizational chart existed. Even worse, the agencies themselves were often unaware of their internal structure. This experience highlighted the severe lack of transparency—and thus accountability—in our state government.
Transparency is lacking even at the highest levels. CACS recently issued a public records request to the governor’s office asking for the state’s checkbook. It was promptly denied on the basis that, due to the many hours required to retrieve the data, it was “not in the public’s interest” to do so. The fact that government spending data is not stored in an easily accessible form underscores the problem—and is simply unacceptable.
This is a problem that permeates the government at every level. Data has been routinely inaccessible in the judicial and legislative branches as well. Everything from courtroom expenditures to legislative staff salaries is guarded like it is a matter of national security.
But you may be reading this and wondering “Why should I care? I’m not a policy analyst, so this should not concern me.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. How our government spends its money is something we should all be concerned about. Imagine hiring a contractor to renovate your home but never asking to see designs, a blueprint or a budget. You just hand over a blank check and return in six months. That is how our government operates. It is free to spend our tax money without any real oversight. Yet for some reason many students at Stanford are either oblivious or just do not care.
Stanford students have a thirst for knowledge. After all, we came to a top university to learn as much as we could about the world. So to us, perhaps more than to anyone else, the lack of transparency in California’s government should be especially frustrating.
Do you want to know the speed of light? Google it. How about the history of Medieval literature? There’s a whole department devoted to it. But do you want to know how much the state spent to pave roads last year? Good luck. This information is part of a wealth of knowledge out there that is completely closed off from Stanford students and California citizens.
So how do we solve this problem? We start by demanding transparent and accountable government. Transparency should be the number one thing on our minds, before we begin to discuss welfare, tax cuts, or prison reform. It is irresponsible to have a strong opinion on policy issues with incomplete data.
Fortunately, this is a problem that is much smaller in scale than it is in impact. Relatively small changes, like updating the state’s computerized accounting system (it was last changed in the 1960s), will have a tremendous impact on transparency efforts. Uniform data reporting and laws requiring that all purchases be tracked in a central office will make it easy for the government to service requests like those of CACS. When the numbers are laid out in front of us, I have no doubt that we will identify simple and concrete solutions that will slash wasteful spending and affect real change in our government.
So why don’t more people care? Ultimately, it is a matter of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits. A million dollars of wasteful spending amounts to no more than a few cents in taxes for the average Californian. But how about billions, or trillions? If we fail to act now, that is where we are headed.
Nate Levine is a Stanford undergraduate and Vice President for California Common Sense, a Stanford based nonprofit.