Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Government Funding by Kickstarter

I really, really, really need a bad ideas tag. But, here is a novel idea that I initially came up with as a joke about what NASA could do with its new lenses. But, I kicked it around today, and I think it is a good start. What I'm saying is that, crowd sourcing funds for government projects may be a legitimate method of funding government tasks at the margins that would normally get over looked for more pressing needs, like payroll, rent and mandatory expenditures.

I am not sure if you could ever, realistically, kickstart a telescope. The scale is so huge, and the logistics terribly complex that the project scope might shift significantly. This isn't a small start up that could simply retool its idea down some. But, if you wanted to revitalize a local park, but did not have the government funds to do it? Kickstart that campaign. Get the mayor or a council member, or two senators from opposing parties to sit down and cut a YouTube video explaining how, while the government is currently unable to fund the park, you the citizens, should have the opportunity to pool resources to achieve a normally government end by short circuiting the normal gridlock in D.C., city hall, the state house, etc.

The other advantage of a Kickstarter like set up is that money is not "spent" until there's enough interest in a project to start it. So, in theory, you could use it as a test run to prove public interest in say, high speed rail, or a community vegetable garden. It would be a laboratory to see what an individual community wants, needs and is willing to spend on. Plus, it keeps the government (or citizens!) from committing resources to something that the community is not, quite literally, invested in seeing succeed. Unlike when your tax dollars are spent, sometimes seemingly at random, you will feel a connection to the project. If you and 300 other citizens of your state contributed to cleaning up the lake and transplanting some fish, you start to have a community again.

This is taking the idea of the policeman or firefighter's ball to a new level. Imagine a city commissioner putting together a bleg on Kickstarter stating that: "Due to budget cuts, the city has been unable to update our kevlar vests that must rotate out due to age. We are currently trying to replace X vests with deteriorated protective capabilities at a cost of $Y per vest." Then, you say that everyone who donates, say, $5 gets one of those Friends of Podunk Police Department stickers in the mail. Put it out on your local website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and ask local radio DJs to announce it. You will get your money.

As long as the funds are used for exactly what the government says, and as long as they stick to non-controversial topics, this should be extremely effective. Does the government bus service need a new bus that it did not budget for? Did an accident on the Metro cause unexpected damage? Kickstart a repair program. Let donators of a certain threshold have their names placed on a single ad in the bus until it is refit or whatever.

Let's expand this to pseudo-government organizations, like the Smithsonian. I wonder how quickly a Smithsonian kickstarter to expand the National Zoo would fill up? Or how quickly they could fund new traveling exhibits and expenses for things like the National History Museum? This makes both sides happy: For the right, it means that generated tax revenue is more likely to spent on purely government functions, while you can kick things like NPR directly to the people when budgets need to be tightened. For the left, you get citizen involvement and grassroots government accountability, along with addressing the need for funds where government solutions are more often proposed, such as in the arts.

I don't know how you would set up the logistics part (making proposals, etc.), and I don't know what the limit should be. As you get to a national level, issues become thornier. But at the local or state level? Kickstarter, or an equivalent program, is really a way to make people feel like the government is listening. If you make the donations tax deductible (up to a certain value), then you can even let people feel like they have a say over how their tax money is spent!

So, I'm just saying, Government: You want to get in on Web 2.0? Try crowd sourcing your next project that you don't have legitimate tax revenue for. If I'll pay to get a game made or a nifty arts and craft project, you'll bet I'll ante up $20 or $30 to contribute to re-sodding the National Mall or other non-critical government nice to haves but do not needs.

So, tell me. Why is this a bad idea, and who in the government do I go to to get this bad idea started?



Look what I got from Kickstarter (memopad not included due to my camera constantly blurring it):

Hooray, pretty things!

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