Why wage-data transparency is a bad idea

Rahm Emmanuel, newly installed mayor of Chicago, has released the salary data for all municipal employees "in a bid to follow through on a campaign promise to bring transparency to government." ABC News looked at the data and found that "The data showed that 2,400 city workers are paid $100,000 or more per year." Furthermore, their analysis showed that "the city's inspector general Joseph Ferguson, in charge of fighting corruption in the metropolis, is paid $161,856, but Emmanuel's administrative secretary is paid $162,500."

Release of salary data is supposed to encourage civic activism - citizens can go through the data themselves and point areas of possible corruption or waste. Unfortunately, this kind of release rarely does more than encourage the kind of short-term thinking that is currently plaguing our government.

The issue here is context - sure, it may sound immediately awful that there are several thousand employees making six figures. But what does it mean in a city with 34,219 employees if the proportion making such incomes comes out to roughly 6% of the workforce. There are lawyers, accountants and other highly-trained professionals working for the city government, all of whom are going to command large salaries. A figure like 6% gives us no ability to determine whether there is waste, but rather encourages the kind of potshot analysis offered by ABC News.

More insidiously though, the release of these data encourages politicians to abscond from their duties as public servants. Just posting salary data is not going to solve corruption (in fact, corruption at the municipal level has traditionally been offering your supporters jobs - not ridiculous wages). Politicians are supposed to be leaders. The mayor should have his staff investigate wage data and bring concerns directly to him, and he can make changes if needed.

These kind of transparency measures do nothing to improve government, but encourage a loss of trust for no apparent benefit. Context is critical for understanding government's decision-making, and the release of these data gives little context. Instead, hold elected officials accountable for monitoring salary data, and let them do their job.