The decision by Civil Beat to publish searchable databases of government employees and their salaries has raised questions about what information should be shared with the public. We received this data after making requests to various agencies because by law, it is required to be public.

Some government employees and union representatives have expressed concern over the publication of this data. For example, see Randy Perreira’s op-ed . Much of the concern has centered on the perceived indignity of having one’s salary be known to one’s co-workers and nosy neighbors.

men women working gender salary salaries

To address the trade-off between personal privacy and the public interest, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at practices in other states.

For starters, let’s take a look at the White House in Washington, D.C. Since 1995, the Administration has been required to furnish to Congress a listing of every White House Office employee and his/her salary. President Barack Obama directed that this publication be made online, and you can now view a list of every person who works in the White House, along with their salary.

At the State level, a Google search reveals many websites devoted to publishing the names of state public employees and their salaries, many published by states themselves.

So, it seems that in general, working for the government means that salary information will not be private.

But that still doesn’t answer the question, “why.” By way of answering that question, most state legislatures have agreed with the broad principle that taxpayers have the right to know how the state’s tax revenue is being spent. This principle extends not just to high-level generalities, but to low-level detailed specifics. In other words, since the taxpayer pays the salaries of public employees, the taxpayer has the right to know who is getting paid how much.

This is a basic principle of accountability. We, the taxpayers, fund our government’s operations, and therefore the government’s administration ought to report back to taxpayers how their money is being spent.

In an example of how this type of accountability can help citizens, the Los Angeles Times reported on city officials in Bell, California paying themselves outrageous salaries, which resulted in the arrest of the city’s Mayor, former city manager, and city council members.

The Bell scandal is a striking abuse of power that was immediately evident. But some types of abuse are less subtle. That is why the names of each employee must be disclosed alongside the salary. Without the names attached to the salaries, it would be impossible to detect patterns of discrimination or favoritism. A longtime local journalist posted a commentary for Hawaii Public Radio making the same point.

And, more prosaically, making the information public may also expose inequities in the office, as one government worker explained to us privately. Discovering that the office’s “sick-day abuser” was paid significantly more than his peers led to some interesting conversations with the boss.

The rare “sick-day abuser” aside, we think that all taxpayers should support more effective compensation practices for government employees, because smarter pay should lead to less waste in government budgets and lower taxes.

But that kind of oversight simply won’t happen if the public doesn’t have access to salary data in a clear and accessible form. In fact, in the wake of the Bell scandal, the State of California will now require that cities report the pay of their elected officials and other employees.

And that’s why the name and salary of every taxpayer-funded government employee is or ought to be public information, and why Civil Beat is committed to ensuring that this public information actually sees the light of day.

(For more information on government transparency efforts and the reasons why they are important, we recommend a visit to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation.)

About the Author