Skip to content


First, Show Them the Money

Start-up unravels state spending to spur citizens' political action.

Among the things that define a Stanford mindset is the attitude that almost any problem is soluble. Sometimes that famously leads to the use of familiar ideas and technologies in unexpected ways. So if anyone's keeping a list, add this: an ambitious student-run start-up called California Common Sense.

A web-based nonprofit whose creators include entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, '04, the organization aims to illuminate all the financial activities of government and empower individual citizens to initiate political change. Got that? It wants to strip away any confusion or secrecy associated with public spending, while making it possible for average people to believe they can fight, subdue and reform city hall.

"Million-dollar problems are hard to comprehend, and we're talking about trillion-dollar problems," notes Nate Levine, '13, director of operations for the Los Altos-based group, which combines 10 full- and half-time staffers with undergraduate and graduate student volunteers plus alums around the country who are part of early expansion efforts. The heart of the work so far has been to collect as much information as possible on California's budgeting and spending and then display the findings with graphics that allow people to monitor government behavior that otherwise would be extremely difficult to track and analyze.

Among the most straightforward examples is the dissection of California's public employee pay. Its graphic display highlights the average pay by agency (judicial, legislative, higher education, etc.) and the distribution range (how many employees earn $30,000 to $40,000 or $90,000 to $100,000, and so on). The material is highly interactive, featuring options such as clicking on specific job types (executive assistant, for instance) to see average pay and salary ranges for that role across all agencies.

It didn't take long for the organization to garner attention and attract some political heat, especially after it described discrepancies between reported and actual spending by Assembly members' offices. Executive director Dakin Sloss, working full time at the organization while completing his degree part time, found himself questioned about possible anti-Democrat motives. (See the press coverage links at Sloss, '12, insists he and his colleagues have pursued nothing except nonpartisan transparency for public data. But he accepts and even embraces any tussle that stems from issues of government accountability.

As a math major turning in streams of problem sets every week, Sloss says, "All I got as feedback for what I was doing with my life was a little score on a piece of paper." In his work with California Common Sense, he revels in the chance to make a practical impact on the world. "I'm raising money," he explains. "I'm interacting with the media. I'm interacting with politicians and getting them excited about the possibility to really change how our system's working."

The organization has chalked up a number of successes quickly, even as huge challenges loom. One of its most conspicuous initiatives is the forging of alliances and research partnerships with a variety of nonprofits, including the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University. Pete Peterson, the institute's executive director, notes that California Common Sense is entering an arena defined by a "Byzantine" complexity in sorting out government records and financial information. But from what he's seen of the Stanford students' approach, "I believe they're up to the task."

Peterson points out that the major ongoing problem will be uncertainty about whether data obtained from government is complete and reliable, an obstacle not lost on Sloss and Levine. Moreover, despite a core mission of deconstructing arcane information, some fiscal visualizations created by California Common Sense are complicated.

"We've learned as we've gone along," says Levine, an electrical engineering major who completed his sophomore year before taking time off to manage the organization's day-to-day activities. "As we're moving forward, a lot of care is going into making them user-friendly and as simple as possible."

The next big push will be to encourage people to take action when data from California Common Sense raise concerns. The basic idea is to facilitate petition drives through the organization's website and convince politicians to participate in the dialogue spurred by those efforts. The organization's Facebook page and other social media formats will be utilized as well.

Lonsdale, best known as a founder of the Palantir Technologies software company, says California Common Sense is a classic example of a celebrated Stanford occurrence: An ensemble of innovators seizes one of the many ideas that are always in the air and transforms it into something tangible. He is listed as founding chairman (with Matt Cook, '11, as founding president), but he emphasizes that the ultimate credit belongs to "quite a large group" of individuals connected to the University. One Stanford link is essential to the data visualizations: Their construction relies on technology from Tableau Software, a company spun out of the work of computer science professor Pat Hanrahan and computer scientist Chris Stolte, PhD '03.

Sloss says the organization has so much momentum, including overtures to morph into a nationally focused organization, that he's had to control the impulse to attempt too much too fast. Fledgling satellite efforts are operating in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, but California still takes priority, with the goal of establishing chapters throughout the state to zero in on local and regional governments.

"We need lots of allies," Sloss says. "This is a really crucial, growing time for us."

Comments (6)

  • Mr. Murray McLachlan

    My thanks to California Common Sense for taking on the task of trying to make sense of the confusing CA government spending information.  I look forward to learning more about the issues and to receiving suggestions for actions CA residents can take.  Murray MBA '69

    Posted by Mr. Murray McLachlan on Jan 18, 2012 3:31 PM

  • Mr. Michael Norton

    California Common Sense is a welcome project. I have heard of similar efforts in other states. Here's a challenge for CCS: Find out how much the state pays each year for lobbyists in Washington, DC. Compare that amount to the cost of two U.S. Senators. Then you'll know how much  the Seventeenth Amendment costs California taxpayers annually.

    Posted by Mr. Michael Norton on Jan 18, 2012 3:43 PM

  • Mr. Stan Quinn

    Transparency is the key to battling the corruption inherent in any political system.  

    Posted by Mr. Stan Quinn on Jan 18, 2012 4:40 PM

  • Mr. Alexis Johnson

    This is an interesting project.

    By the way (re Mr. Norton's comment above), $260,000.00 seems to be the official tally on CA state lobbying costs in Wash D.C. in state reported expenses for 2011.  

    It is likely not the popular voting of people for Senators that corrupts the US Senate, if it is corrupted; it is more likely that unhealthy dependence on funding sources that are not equal to voting electors (natural persons) that sways the function of more proper representation of people of the states in Congress.


    Posted by Mr. Alexis Johnson on Jan 18, 2012 10:03 PM

  • Mr. Thomas Siverly

    This is a great idea and project. In my view, the greatest threat to our economy is no longer terrorism. It is the unchecked, undisciplined growth in the unit cost of public sector employment. One action we can all take is to vote against any and all new taxes or tax increases. The problem with CA budget is spending, not revenue. We must fight back. The real class warfare in America is not about the 1% at the top, it is the disparity between public sector compensation vs. the private sector worker.

    Posted by Mr. Thomas Siverly on Jan 24, 2012 8:20 PM

  • Mr. Jon Castor

    I share the enthusiasm for CCS.  I particularly like the very first CCS project: "an interactive map of all 3,600+ entities that exist within the executive branch of the California government... The first organizational map of its kind."  at  

    Posted by Mr. Jon Castor on Feb 1, 2012 4:48 PM


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!