Widgets Magazine

Bringing clarity to the budget crisis

(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

After a week of school, Stanford students are already buzzing around campus with problem sets in hand, essays to write and meetings to schedule. Within the Stanford bubble, all students are able to solve problems — but a Stanford student group and nonprofit organization called California Common Sense (CACS) has taken that problem solving to the next level. These students hope to tackle one of the largest problems in California’s history: the budget crisis.

CACS is a team of Stanford students and alumni working to identify where California allocates its money, to inform the public of where the money is going and to find a policy solution to address government inefficiencies. It uses Stanford analytics and Silicon Valley technology to help people grasp the structures of state and local budgets.

Started in 2010 by Matt Cook ’11 and Joe Lonsdale ’03, CACS has blossomed from just an idea into a full-fledged nonprofit organization.

Cook and Lonsdale were “concerned that the California government wasn’t working well,” said CACS executive director Dakin Sloss ’12. “Most people only got concerned; they don’t know where to go after that…we have an engagement program to help people take action.”

“Our group isn’t about politics or philosophy,” Cook said. “It’s about showing people the numbers, and using an engineering approach to reveal — and fix — inefficiencies in order to get our state back on track.”

But how do they necessarily do that? It began as a research think tank.

A group of students wanted to know “what was actually going wrong in the California government, what departments were doing what, if they were doing what they were supposed to do,” said CACS research analyst Druthi Ghanta ’14. “If they weren’t, the question of ‘do we even need them anymore’ arose.”

CACS dug deep to collect data on all of California’s government entities. They read fiscal reports, contacted government officials and checked for redundancies in the reports of state organizations.

Ghanta said the process took months.

Once they collected all of the data, CACS put it into a suite of tools designed to sift through and clarify budgetary information, called the “data transparency portal.”

“Realizing that the first step in solving a problem is understanding it, we created the ‘California org chart’ and other ‘transparency tools’ to make California’s institutional problems obvious to citizens and to empower people to solve them,” Cook said.

“We’re trying to get people to actually care about what’s going on in the government, instead of being apathetic,” Ghanta said.

CACS has already gained the attention of elected officials at the state and federal level. They have worked to prepare spending analyses for U.S. Congressman Eric Cantor, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the state of Georgia.

As executive director of the organization, Sloss has weekly meetings and telephone conferences with elected officials. Other U.S. congressmen have also expressed interest in working with CACS.

While the portal is already in place and the website is running smoothly, the group still has a lot of work ahead of it. They aspire to spread across California and eventually across the nation primarily through other collegiate organizations.

“We want to get millions of Californians online, discussing and understanding the issues at hand,” Sloss said. “What we need to do is give everyone a voice so we can have an effective democracy,” one without the “inherent flaw where corporations, unions and special interest groups buy off elected officials.”

Whether it ultimately reaches its goals or not, California Common Sense seems to have the Stanford mentality behind — it dreams big and shoots for the moon.