If I were a New Mexico state employee, crunched somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy (which I used to be), and I learned that my colleagues’ salaries were posted online, I would be tempted to take a peek. I might scan for anyone whose salary was higher than mine but who, in my opinion, didn’t deserve it. If I found any, I might become just a bit resentful. Would my work suffer? A little, possibly. Would I use this information to justify small acts of defiance, like sneaking a novel into the restroom now and then? Maybe. Would I be distressed that my own salary had been put on public display? Absolutely. Wouldn’t you?
New Mexico state employees’ salaries were posted online, with names, on the state’s “Sunshine Portal,” until the names were removed following a court order, prompted by a lawsuit filed by the employee union AFSCME. The court order, it is important to note, referred specifically to the Sunshine Portal. The data base was left in place, with names deleted for classified employees.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I was concerned not only about employee morale and potential internal dissension, but about the kind of mischief that could be done TO all those employees by nefarious use of the data – cheesy targeted marketing programs or worse. The Internet is a dangerous place for personal information. Potentially, anybody with evil intentions and sophisticated software could download the data base, then use the information, along with thousands of correctly spelled names, for identity theft or other scams.
As it turned out, my relief was premature.
The data base resurfaced on a private web site operated by the “Watchdog” affiliate of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank. The Watchdog obtained the data after the lawsuit was filed but before the judge’s ruling, according to Jim Scarantino, a reporter with the Watchdog.
It had already been established that the information is public, so apparently this was not illegal. Before the Sunshine Portal posting, the information had been available but was inconvenient to get – a modest cushion of protection for employees’ privacy.
Then the Governor’s office posted the whole searchable database on another state web page – just not on the Sunshine Portal.
I generally favor open government, but it’s hard to see benefit to public policy from exposing the salaries of rank-and-file employees with their names. They are not like political appointees or top managers. Their pay is based on a classification system. Unless they are promoted, they get raises only when the legislature approves a raise for all of them. And you, the citizen, can’t make much use of the information, because the job titles don’t explain what any particular person actually does.
I don’t understand why the Governor’s office – or the Rio Grande Foundation, for that matter – has been so doggedly determined to expose this on the Internet. When I asked Paul Gessing, who runs this foundation, what the purpose was, he said, “We really don’t know how it’s going to benefit people until it’s out there.”
And we don’t know what harm it might cause, either. What we do know is that, like the photos we warn teenagers not to post on Facebook, information once posted on the Net is there forever.
In the quest for open and transparent government, we need to consider what really constitutes accountable disclosure. Not everything that can be posted should be. And many things aren’t posted would be more beneficial to helping shape future policy decisions. Agency program outcomes, for example, so we can see what we are getting for our money. And maybe a financial audit now and then.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2012