This week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan Press Association and Michigan Coalition for Open Government published an online, searchable database of government workers and their salaries.
It was immensely popular. The Michigan Government Salaries Database almost immediately garnered thousands of views. But many of the people employed by schools, various arms of the state and judges have questioned why we made public information more readily available.
The Mackinac Center and its employees have lots of friends in government, and some even have family members who are part of this database. (We even have a few current employees in there). Still, we side with the taxpayers when it comes to knowing how much is paid to whom, because it is taxpayers who employ government workers.
It's a trade-off. Taxpayers can't opt out of paying these salaries, so government employees can't opt out of disclosure.
We realize the information within our database is already public and obtainable. However, we know first-hand that government can make this data hard to get. And if it was difficult for the Mackinac Center to obtain, just think how hard it is for an average, single taxpayer to access. So, we chose to make this information easily accessible and searchable to all.
We considered the idea of just posting salaries alongside job titles. But in the end we chose to publish names. Why? Because taxpayers don't often know job titles of public employees. What they know best is an actual human being with an actual name who has a tax-funded salary and is a part of the neighborhood or community. What they know is, "He works for the Secretary of State," or, "She works for MDOT, or something," or "He works for the school, I think." Taxpayers aren't going to ask their neighborhood state worker for a business card to figure out a job title.
Another reason we made the names easy to search is so watchdogs – be they reporters, ordinary citizens or policy makers themselves – can uncover shenanigans and scams. We've found several instances of gross pension spiking and "ghost workers" who are doing union work on the taxpayer dime. Having this info buried in inaccessible government databases serves no one but the bad actors. Without actual names to go on, I have no idea how we would have brought these abuses to light.
A third reason we made the names easy to search is to counteract the dozens, maybe hundreds, of news stories of government employees claiming poverty. We have personally debunked dozens of these false, public claims in the mainstream media where journalists were given incorrect information and broadcast it to thousands, reinforcing a harmful and erroneous narrative that stands in the way of reform. With our database, journalists can now easily and quickly fact-check such claims. It serves no public purpose for people to believe that government wages are lower than they really are.
Before creating the database, we did our homework to make sure that in other states where such tools exist, the safety of public employees doesn't seem to be compromised. There is simply no evidence that the same kind of databases in Ohio, California, Nevada, or Illinois have led dangerous people to harm or harass public workers.
The overwhelming trend is for more and more government info to be made universally accessible. It's a factor of technology and related social expectation. In other words, more transparency is coming whether anyone likes it or not and if responsible people don't take charge of it, then irresponsible ones will.
Working with government data often uncovers issues that go beyond whatever you expected to find in the first place, which happened to us here. We began hearing from some state employees that the database was over-reporting their salaries, often significantly. We quickly checked to make sure that the error wasn't on our side, then took portions of the database down regardless to keep bad information from causing confusion.
It turns out that simply asking for state workers' salaries exposed flaws in the state's Office of Retirement Services systems. In their amended FOIA response, they told us that a "technical error" had caused them to give us incorrect information on 4,500 state workers. They've since sent us the numbers they think are correct. But the fact that the state's pension system operator had bad information on worker salaries, and gave it to us in response to a public records request, is a good reason for why it should be easier for people to access that information. It took thousands of people using the database to find the 1.5 percent of records that ORS said it got wrong. What would have happened had we and our partners never made it available to them?
This information is already publicly available and owned by the people. Our database made it more easily available, while uncovering potentially serious administrative issues in an important government office. One of the Mackinac Center’s signature contributions to policy discourse in its 30-year history has been making public data more accessible to everyone, not just politicians and bureaucrats. We will continue to fight for an open, transparent government.
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The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
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