Public Pay and the Cost of Transparency

Many public officials don’t want their compensation posted online for all to see. That’s understandable. But making government workers’ pay public is probably inevitable, and it raises some difficult questions.
by | April 26, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

In his book "The Turnaround," Bill Bratton, the former chief of police of Boston, New York City and Los Angeles, tells the story of his interview with John Miller, an investigative reporter for a local television station who was one of the finalists to be the New York police department's deputy commissioner for public information. "'Tell me again,' I asked. 'You make $600,000 a year and you want this job that pays $95,000?' You had to wonder about his sanity." (Miller took the job.)

Do you have to be crazy to want to be a public employee these days? And, ultimately, how much were Bill Bratton and John Miller worth to the citizens of New York City?

That's just one of the questions that came to mind as I read Mike Maciag's article on, "Disclosing Public Employee Pay Troubles Some Officials," and watched the reaction it provoked. Governing's research division surveyed more than 200 senior state and local officials across the country. Thirty percent of these officials thought that their pay should not be considered part of the public record, while half said they would react negatively to their names and salaries posted online.

The story touched a nerve. It's received thousands of page views, has been at the top of the "most viewed" list on, and has generated dozens of strongly worded online comments.

I wasn't surprised that some of those surveyed don't want their pay considered part of the public record and that they especially balked at having their names and salaries posted online. Government employees have the same privacy concerns as other people, even when they recognize that by accepting a government job they will be subject to greater scrutiny than people who work for private employers. In addition, as is very apparent in the tone of the online comments, some government employees feel disrespected, defensive and unfairly singled out for problems far beyond their control. Making their salaries part of the public record just gives their critics one more hammer to hit them with.

For me, the article brought some other questions to mind:

• Is working for government an honorable way to make a living? And if it is not, how can we expect good and decent people to want to work for us as government employees?

• Are all government employees public officials? I think there's a clear and important distinction to be made between officials — those with leadership responsibility — and the average computer programmer, firefighter or schoolteacher. For public officials, all information should be easily available, but for rank-and-file workers, it seems to me that making their names and individual salaries available online simply adds an unnecessary barrier to attracting the best candidates.

And what about private contractors' and nonprofits' employees who, more than ever, do work that was once performed by government employees? Tax dollars are involved in either case, and so should employees of those organizations meet the same disclosure requirements as the government workers they are replacing?

• Does making names and salaries available online curb corruption? In Maciag's article, Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, asserts that the public information acts as a deterrent to corruption, and gives the example of Bell, Calif., where city officials were charged with malfeasance only after a series of reports revealed that they were receiving extravagantly large salaries. Would disclosure before the fact have prevented the abuses in Bell from occurring? Possibly, but it seems to me that sound systems of internal control and governance are far more effective in deterring public corruption.

• Finally — and most important — what is the public-policy objective? What does making public the names and salaries of rank-and-file public work cost us in terms of employee morale and dedication? And is it worth the cost? High-performing, cost-effective organizations are those with fewer employees-better trained, better equipped, better managed and better paid.

The principle invoked in publishing names and salaries of rank and file employees is transparency, but it seems to me that there are clearly some types of information that should be disclosed and some that should not be. Transparency cannot mean that every bit of information is available to anyone in the public at any time. Distinctions must be made. How shall we make them?

The erosion of privacy continues for all of us, regardless of how we make a living. It's virtually impossible for politicians to resist the pressure to make detailed information on public-employee compensation public, whether people who work in government like it or not. What matters is what we do with the information. We should all remember this: You get what you pay for, and we don't want people to have to be crazy to want to work for our governments.