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    How Far Should Transparency Go?

    by Steven Clift
    March 18, 2008

    Government Technology reported on public employee protests to seeing their names and salaries online via a database on the Sacramento Bee.

    What about public employee salaries – should all be publicly posted online? Should only management level and above be listed specifically with others displaying the salary range per pay scales for various classifications?

    I have a hard time imagining a democracy where any and all legally public government information is not on the Internet for all to see in a decade or so. This means the ethics filings of public officials will be liberated from the dusty paper files in the deep dark almost hidden office which holds such information for “accountability.”

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    In the meantime, should newspaper slap this stuff online while open government gets its act together? Here is some of the reaction on the Bee.

    Steven Clift
    E-Democracy.Org

    Tagged: government public employees sacramento bee salaries transparency
    • Seems to me that the news organizations that shine a spotlight on people — be they government employees, celebrities or business moguls — should be prepared to shine that spotlight back on themselves as well.

      “But the Bee isn’t a public company” is a cop out. It doesn’t matter. Like the saying goes: Good for the goose, good for the gander.

      We the media should offer as much if not more so the transparency we expect of others. It’s only right.

    • I used to be an editor at the Sacramento Bee.

      Having left the paper about a decade ago, I can tell you that the view of what’s right, or ethically acceptable, differs dramatically out in the public from what newsroom journalists think is fair game.

      If I were still at the paper, I would have argued that publishing the names and salaries of state employees in management positions is fine — it comes with the territory. And publishing salary information of what someone in a state job makes is fair game.

      But I don’t see the purpose of attaching names to salaries for rank-and-file employees. That crosses a line into invasion of privacy, even if the paper had every legal right to do so.

    • Plenty of information is available as a matter of public record (salaries paid to top staff of non-profit organizations, for instance) but there is a difference between data buried in IRS filings and data with a searchable web interface.

      Or is there? I’d love to see a data mashup that mined the 990 data available on Guidestar and let me look at how different subsets of non-profit organizations are spending their money. Not because I want to know what my neighbor makes but because I am interested in how top salaries vary in general.

      I’m loathe to make blanket statements about news organizations and what they should never publish, but looking over the database I have plenty of questions about the value of the database as a tool for Bee readers, as a tool for civic participation.

      It would be a lot more interesting to be able to pull trends out of the database,and as far as I can tell readers can’t do that. The actual names of each gov staffer aren’t half as interesting as being able to look at the range in pay for a particular title or to see how different agencies break down in terms of how many people are working in a particular capacity. The database only includes base pay, not overtime or bonuses–another layer of data that would make the whole project a lot more interesting. The names themselves might actually be relevant if readers were invited to start assessing job descriptions.

      I know you posed a question about transparency, and when it goes too far, but to my mind the questions this database raises are all about engaging readers in reporting, and the tension between the general notion that databases are nifty, the simple fact that very few news organizations are doing much that is actually interesting with the data at their disposal.

      I’m a lot less interested in business model innovations than in innovations in news reporting itself.

    • Jane Briggs-Bunting

      The Lansing State Journal published the salaries of Michigan state employees in fall 2007 and raised a firestorm of complaints from state workers.
      The paper simply published the database without any story atatched. It was a good public service effort, but some context was needed and should have been provided by the newspaper. A story analyzing the dat in some way would have given context.
      As it was, vieweres flocked to the online dataset.
      Was some of that just pure curiosity? Probably most of it was. And I am sure it was uncomfortable to have neighbors and friends know how little or how much you make.
      Public employees work for the people of the state or, in the case of federal employees, of that nation. A realization and acceptance of transparency is part of the job.
      I work for a state public institution. My salary is public, as well. And it should be. It’s called accountability.

    • ardyth sohn

      The power of transparency is that a larger core of citizens who might have insights (because of their jobs/special knowledge/experience)about public data can participate and decide for themselves whether the job public figures (as well as journalists) do is good, fair or poor.

    • Actually, the Bee is a public company. It’s part of McClatchy, though only the salaries of the top officers are public.

      That aside, I’d echo some of the comments above. This is public information. These folks work for the taxpayers. We all should know what we pay them for a living, and who they are.

      Beyond that, it’s clear that readers really engage with these data sets online. I think it represents a type of journalism that reflects that way people consume information online. They like to click around sets of information and make discoveries on their own, whether it’s a salary database or YouTube. This is one of the reasons that Gannett has invested heavily in expanding data-centric reporting and products online. It’s good journalism, and it’s good for business (more clicks).

    • Ellen Hume

      Hi, I liked Amanda’s take on this issue. I find it hard to get exercised one way or the other about publishing the salaries of ordinary mid-level public servants but I wouldn’t do it without a specific, compelling reason. Sure, the public can find it. But by publishing it you have decided it is important, and you aren’t using your clout for something else. I would rather focus on how to hold governments accountable for their policy choices and actions. If we can’t count on the convening power, money and clout of MSM, then we have to find a way to bring sustained attention, a sense of priority and context, and perhaps even new tools to the transparency battle. Transparency and the business model for journalism—Steve’s two questions for us this week–are of course, intimately connected. If transparency is available to all through our new tech tools, then we don’t need journalists to reveal anything to us. Ah, but how will we understand this information? How can we contextualize it? Someone has to do that, and perhaps we want some transparency about that person’s expertise and stance. News organizations think that the public understands why they’re doing what they do. Wrong. More transparency is required. But not about whom the reporters are voting for. That’s minor compared to the whole question about why the newspaper is publishing what it publishes. How does it make news choices? Why did it use that photo? What about that reporter makes him/her trustworthy to the editor? Participating in the Knight Foundation’s meeting for community foundations in Miami last month was a real eye-opener. One foundation executive after another talked not about how new tools might energize their work, or what the decline of newspapers might mean to their civic life, but rather about how much they hated their local newspapers. Few seemed to think MSM cared about the civic health of their communities, and even fewer had thought prior to the conference about the communication needs of their constituents. This seems to be both a sad lesson and a rich opportunity.

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