Thursday, August 6, 2009

Government transparency is a good thing ... until it isn't

The rightwing, conservative [did I cover all the bases?] Delaware thinktank Caesar Rodney Institute has created a web page entitled Delaware Spends, which--under the "Payroll" subsection--

provides a database of names, positions and salaries for employees of the State of Delaware, Kent County, Sussex County and Delaware's 19 school districts.

This is not new. Those of you who have been around Delaware since longer than last weekend will recall that about 1992-1993 the Delaware State News printed--forty names at a time--the exact salaries of every single State employee, with names and job titles attached. [There were a lot fewer State employees in those days.] I remember that you would go to the paper every morning to see if it was your turn in the barrel.

CRI's new database undoubtedly exists for partisan reasons, but as long as it is accurate, should that matter?

Some of my friends, who have long been strident advocates for open government and government transparency think not.

Quoth Liberalgeek at Delawareliberal:

I’m not going to assign blame to a particular individual for the posting of payroll information....

What I am going to look at is the potential impact of the payroll data that CRI has posted.

In the next few years, it seems likely that Governor Markell will be cutting positions and putting a number of State workers on the job market. How does their life get impacted by CRI?

If a state employee resume comes across a potential employers desk, CRI’s database of payroll data is likely to assist the employer in negotiating salary.... [detailed examples of hypothetical situations follow]

I wonder if this sort of outcome was anticipated by the CRI gang. To his credit, Dave Burris has stated that he thought personally identifiable information should be excluded from the database. Apparently, Dave left sometime after his suggestion was overruled.

I don’t know who at CRI was responsible for the decision, but certainly there is a difference between the analysis of a public figure’s resume and the impact on innocent state employees that may lose 10’s or 100’s of thousands of earning potential. The overall difference is a matter of exponential proportions.

And a little further down:

And just because the government expends money for something, should we all be entitled to see it? For example, should I be able to see what medical procedures my neighbor has had recently, just because she has Medicare? The taxpayers paid for it, should we be able to see who among us has had a hip replacement on the state dime?

We are talking about the fine line between public and private information. I think open government is fine, but there come a point where it doesn’t need to be personally identifiable. In my opinion, that line has been crossed.

First, let's dispense with the specious Medicare argument. Medical expenses and details like that are [currently, at least] protected by law under FERPA. There is a dramatic difference between the salaries of public employees, who are paid out of tax dollars to provide specific services and asking for the public release of everybody's medical records who might have received State assistance.

The complaint with regard to the inclusion of names raises a tough issue. Ironically, because my employer [Delaware State University] is currently claiming not to be a State agency [things were different in 1992], you cannot find my salary in the database. I wish you could, for reasons I will explain in a moment. But, like RSmitty, you can find my wife's salary for the past several years if you are really interested in tracking it down.

I understand the privacy concerns here, but please note: the names and salaries of State employees are matters of public record by law; all that CRI did was make them feasible for average citizens to find.

This, according to DL commenter John Manifold, is not a good thing:

I’ve always thought this notion of on-line first-dollar reporting was a Trojan horse by the drown-the-government crowd. Salary information has always been public, but the logistics – asking a real person, waiting a day or three for an answer – kept the inquiries to serious ones [newspapers, litigants, etc.]

To which Liberalgeek responds [in the best and most accurate phrase of the day]:

Yes, JM, essentially the data has been weaponized.

And that's a good thing.


Consider the budget battles over State employee salaries just past. Had the salaries of State employees been searchable then, those of us who were attempting to determine the true median and actual cost of the salary cuts to the lowest paid State employees would have had real data to work with, instead of statistical models, we would have been in much better position to place a human face on the people most severely hurt by across-the-board pay cuts. [By the way, I notice that nobody complained about the WNJ publishing the names and positions of every State and school employee making $100,000 or over during the same period. Except maybe Lonnie George.]

Or consider the impact of this register on collective bargaining. Here's a deep thought for those of you who have no experience in collective bargaining: senior administrators lie. They make up figures, they hide bonuses, they use position titles without names to obscure methods of funneling money in various directions that are contractually illegal. If a senior administrative negotiator told an AFSCME bargaining team (to cite but one example I have actually seen) that none of the administrative assistants or executive secretaries (who are not in the bargaining unit, but whose salaries are generally benchmarked against those of senior secretaries) have been approved for bonuses in the past two years, absent the ability to check that, union reps have to take the administrators at their word.

Thousands if not millions of dollars are at stake here when a contract calls for the bargaining unit members to get raises if the non-bargaining unit positions get bonuses.

You might think a FOIA request would get this information, but you'd be wrong. Oh, it will eventually get the information, but you have to file a separate request for each person about whom you are inquiring and you have to know the exact name of the document or at least its date in order to make the request. See: you have to request documents, not information. The granting agency has no responsibility under FOIA to create a document to satisfy your demand for information.

In real-time terms of contract negotations for State employees, this information will be invaluable.

It also allows labor union grievance officers to monitor the distribution of overtime wages among bargaining unit members and administrators (a really sore subject for years at the Delaware State Police) in virtual real-time.

Which makes it ironic that a rightwing, conservative thinktank like CRI is releasing, and leftwing, liberal bloggers are objecting to a fountain of information that will primarily end up benefitting ... labor unions.

We don't even have to talk about examining the positions held and the money made by the friends and families of our wonderful, absolutely above reproach legislators and senior school officials.

Transparency hurts: that is Liberalgeek's point.

But it hurts because it has a finite starting point instead of having been a requirement for doing business all along.

Why did I wish my information was included? Because if my employer were required to release that kind of information, by name, all sorts of very bad skeletons would be forced out of their closets. All sorts of prior, unsubstantiated assertions made by management could be verified or debunked.

Yes, there is a dynamic between individual privacy and the public's right to know--or at least we'd like to think so.

But knowledge is power, and the State government and the school districts have been using the power of their exclusive knowledge to screw over their employees for years.

This levels the playing field quite a bit.

As for the political usages of this data: if you have reached the point where you don't want your political opponents to have access to the truth, you have already become the enemy that you fear.


Anonymous said...

The whole CRI thing that has Dl up in arms is that republicans are behind it. if it were democrats, then DP and resolute and colossus would be crying foul.

Tyler Nixon said...

Shorter anonymous : I know you are, but what am I?

Hube said...

Speak for yourself, anon. Local politics don't interest me much.

Anonymous said...

One clarification... you don't have to know the name of a document or its date to request it.

You can't request overly broad categories - "every letter sent from the Secretary of Labor from 1992 to the present" is out. But you can request specific information without knowing EXACTLY what you're looking for.

Anything else would defeat the entire purpose of FOIA - you have to know what documents they have in order to get the documents? Ridiculous.

"All correspondence from Dec. 28, 2008, to Feb 5., 2009, between Agency A and Person B," for example, might get you somewhere. Or "Any records pertaining to building inspections or zoning inspections of the property at 111 Adams Street."

As for "weaponized" information? Hogwash.

tom said...

DL's whole argument is specious anyway. The first thing a prospective employer with any sense does once they have a shortlist of candidates is contact previous employers to verify employment history. That generally includes salary.

And having a searchable database also gives underpaid state employees a stronger bargaining position individually, because they can go into performance reviews knowing exactly what the people in similar positions are paid.

LiberalGeek said...

Tom - I have verified employment for former employees. You cannot talk about salary information. The corporate policy at both companies that I had the opportunity to verify employment was that you could only confirm dates of employment. Nothing else. One could become liable if they delve deeper.

Steve - I'm sorry I missed this when you wrote it. I would like a shield law that protects identities of these employees. I am happy with titles and even appointed employees having information freely available. I'm just not sure that John Smith, a night janitor at a middle school, needs to have his $15/hour salary published just because his employer is the State of Delaware.

As a stockholder with a company, I am not entitled to salary information of people that contribute to my retirement savings. Not sure why I am entitled to it here.

As for medical, yes it is protected, but is there a good reason to do so if we are not going to protect other personal info?