Public Servant = Public Salary?

By Megan Bensatte

The blog FedSmith recently published the individual 2013 salaries of much of the federal workforce like it does every year, highlighting an almost 200-year-old history of government transparency.

Top salaryMany believe this kind of transparency provides social benefit. For example, it could be argued that the disclosure of salary is a means to identify and address pay inequity, between men and women for example. Or that it shows discrepancy between public service and corporate pay. Recent research suggests that the public release of salary may increase productivity based on social comparison. And some believe those with higher salaries would feel social pressure to earn their keep.

Others feel the making this kind of information public is an invasion of privacy, or that it means little about a person without qualifiers, such as job duties, level of education and previous experience. For some, the concern is simply for the safety and welfare of those whose information is released.

This kind of information disclosure is not limited to federal government; local newspapers have been heard of publishing the salaries of teachers and city hall members as well.

What do you think from a public administration point of view? Should the salaries of public servants be public knowledge?


2 thoughts on “Public Servant = Public Salary?

  1. Dear Megan,

    You raise a pivotal question which dominates discussions about public service today: Where do we draw the lines between public and private lives? On the one hand, public employees have a role to fulfill and a duty to uphold the public trust, and on the other, public employees are also private persons when not acting out their public roles. You also raise the issue of whether or not transparency is an effective accountability mechanism; is it necessary? Does it ever go too far? Does the loss of privacy even deter otherwise stellar professionals to enter public service in the first place, or does it prompt public servants to leave for this very reason?

    I wonder if salaries could be disclosed without naming names. For example, a government agency with Joan Smith, a Level II Analyst, John Doe, a Level I Technician, and Jane Jones, an Assistant Director, could have salaries disclosed as “Level II Analyst — $50,000,” “Level I Analyst — $60,000,” and “Assistant Director — $70,000.” Such a format would emphasize the public roles, rather than the private persons who occupy those roles. That would perhaps inject greater objectivity into the oversight process, and emphasis could be placed on the achievements of the individual occupying those roles. Productivity could be assessed in terms of individual outputs — cases processed, outcomes such as reduced wait times at the DMV, reduced crime, etc — or vice versa, which would then raise inherent questions about if there is a need for organizational reform to boost productivity. That is accountability in motion.

    Thus, salary figures shouldn’t be a standalone cause for complaints; before passing judgment, the other half of the question must be answered.

    To achieve this, salary data (inputs) should be supplemented with what responsibilities and functions the person performs; what have they accomplished in the past year? In the past month? At a time when individual achievements are obscured by general performance reports for an entire office or organization (which often do not discuss individual achievements or contributions), I believe that the inputs (salary figures) should be reported with some accounting of individual accomplishments within an organization. Then, there would be a better picture of what the salaries are being used to fund on an individual level. What exactly does the Assistant Director do to earn that $70,000 salary? We see these moments of outrage when learning that a teacher earns $60,000, for example. But what has that teacher achieved — have student test scores improved? How many students does this teacher manage? How many students completed the academic year successfully?

    If inputs are more properly presented through the larger lens of the individual outputs and long term outcomes, then this will lead to a more holistic understanding and deemphasize what’s going OUT, and shift the paradigm towards what’s coming IN — as it very well should!

    Thank you again for raising these issues, Megan! This article is a succinct and interesting read.

    Jason Bowns


  2. Hello, I do not think that disclosing public salaries is a good thing. I am more concerned with the privacy of the public employees. And for those who are interested in achieving transparency, whether they are policymakers or scholars, I do believe that there are plenty of ways to find out the public salaries rather than revealing them publicly for those who are just curious to know how much his neighbours get.


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