Fast Company

Can Twitter Save California's Budget Crisis?

stop_sign1_modified Last week, an embattled Governor Schwarzenegger gave an exasperated thanks to his Twitter followers for suggesting ways California could squeeze revenue into the state budget. As government waste stacks more zeros onto California’s debt clock, isn’t it time the State leveraged technology to crowd source its citizens?

California Uncovers (Negative) Cash

California citizens have already unearthed millions in government waste. For example, in his weekly address, Schwarzenegger profiled the discovery of a $111,000 medical device “collecting dust,” which was notified via California’s anonymous tipline, wastewatch.com. Additional savings of over $24 million has come from the notification of underused state vehicles. Altogether, from both big and small waste, the state can pull together enough money to hire hundreds of teachers, policemen, and construction workers.

Soliciting information:

On top of alerting city officials to waste, citizens happen to be a great source of serendipity. Schwarzenegger has publically thanked twitter followers for sending in useful ideas. One such suggestion was to use his celebrity signature to boost the sale price of government items:

@Schwarzenegger:“That's a great idea, @RyanStothard. I think I'll sign some items to bring in more $ at the auction”

This suggestion came in handy given a previous idea to sell unused government items on the free listing website, Craigslist.

Fantastic idea, @NathanJohns. We'll actually be having a CA Garage Sale at the end of Aug to auction cars and office supplies”

Why Twitter is unique: it’s open source for citizens

California has a turbulent history with participatory democracy, from its budget destroying ballot propositions to failed attempts at citizen advisory panels. Twitter is getting traction because  it can be done on an individual’s own time, is almost entirely free of cost, and, most importantly, exploits citizen’s expertise as part-time complainers. That is, “twitizenship” takes a page from open-source software. For those unfamiliar with the term, “open-source” is software that is created by a large community of programmers committed to distributing the program for free and without copyright so long as any modifications are also freely accessible and without copyright. Many of the world’s most popular programs are open source, including the firefox web browser. While a small group of expert programmers typically write about 80% of the code, open-source draws strength from co-opting millions of its users to join in the coding process with mico-improvements of their own: fixing bugs, adding convenience modifications, etc. Twitter works the same way as open source by asking citizens to give mini-suggestions as they happen to stumble upon ideas in their everyday lives.

Where to next?

The State should substantially expand the use of publically available tiplines and online message feeds. Millions, if not billions, could be saved. But, this shouldn’t be done by creating another slow-as-a-glacier bureaucracy. Rather, state officials, like Schwarzenegger, should monitor tiplines and their personal twitter accounts on a constant basis. I dare say this could be the first government program in California’s history that’s low-cost, transparent, democratic, and, (yes) efficient,

Gregory Ferentein

Follow Me on Twitter

*Schedule me for a speaking engagement: gferenst [at] uci.edu

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