What's In Your Wallet?

The Sacramento Bee is learning what several other news organizations already knew: The salaries of government employees may be public information, but the employees really hate it when you make it public.
by | March 7, 2008

Sill_2 The Sacramento Bee is learning what several other news organizations already knew: The salaries of government employees may be public information, but the employees really hate it when you make it public.

Bee Editor Melanie Sill (pictured right) published a note to readers this week responding to complaints from state workers about its new employee salary database. Sill's note said the complaints picked up steam "in the wake of an employees' union email to members."

"The Bee did not set out to embarrass anyone or to invade anyone's privacy," she wrote, emphasizing that "government pay is public record, not private information," and that the database was part of bigger push by the newspaper to provide access to public information online. (Sill, with whom I used to work at the News & Observer in North Carolina, also wrote about that push in another recent column.)

State workers gave the Lansing State Journal , the Boston Herald and several other newspapers similar lashings after they posted government pay databases on their Web sites -- as I wrote in a short article for Governing last year (second item: "PAYROLL PEEKING").

Based on Sill's note, it sounds like California's capital city paper is hearing many of the same arguments now. Some employees, the Bee editor said, complained that the newspaper was compromising their safety by revealing where they work and possibly exposing them to identity theft.

Sill said she and her colleagues did not think they had published "information that could not easily be obtained from other public sources. State workers' names and locations, for instance, are available online through the state government employee directory." She also said the paper did not think "names and pay levels are adequate information for identity theft," noting that addresses, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and other personal information were not part of the database.

As for the big question -- why publish this information at all? -- the editor had this to say:

    "The pay information provides insights from the small to the large about how government compensates employees, how pay for various positions and individuals compares to others, how public sector pay compares to private industry and many other such findings. We believe that public information belongs to the public and that if it is accessible to some people it should be accessible to any citizen."

In fact, as my story and Sill's note both point out, government agencies in at least two states, Georgia and Iowa, post salary information about their employees on their own Web sites. And the Bee is running news stories -- such as an analysis of some striking and apparently selective pay hikes -- that help put the data into context for readers. But the slew of comments posted on Sill's note (more than 450 as of Thursday evening California time) suggests the conversation is far from over.

One way news organizations could address the concerns of state workers would be to post salary databases using titles only -- no names. However, that's not a  perfect or even fair solution. So many employees have unique jobs or work in small offices or departments that in effect everyone would know what some people make, but not others.

As for the security concerns, journalists might consider a fix  we used for a regional real estate database we put online when I worked at another media company. As soon as the database hit the Web, we heard from concerned law enforcement officers, normal people who had been in abusive relationships, and others with legitimate worries. We decided to give these individuals the benefit of the doubt by temporarily hiding their names from public view, and then provided longer-term anonymity to anyone who could produce official documents (copies of court papers, letters from law enforcement officials) that justified offering them special protections.

Governments also could take proactive measures on this front too by either redacting or simply flagging some limited information about certain individuals with legitimate security issues before exporting it in response to a public or media requests. As long as the rules were clear and consistent and those protections were extremely limited, few news organizations would squawk about such measures.

Even still, angry government workers still would be sending the Bee cranky messages and canceling their newspaper subscriptions.

The response to the Lansing State Journal's salary database last year was just as intense, in part because it went online in the middle of a nasty state budget fight in Michigan, where government salaries were a big issue. Most of the workers who posted reader responses on the Lansing Web site were negative too. But one comment by a state employee has stuck in my mind: "I for one am glad to see this information online," the worker wrote. "If state employees are underpaid they should have no problem with this info being public." Plus, the worker added hopefully, now citizens could see for themselves exactly how much more "our do-nothing managers make."

(Hat tip to Poynter's Romenesko for alerting me to the latest database flap. There also is a lively and interesting discussion on the issue there -- presented with the most recent comments first. Image of Sill above from the Sacramento Bee .)