Sunday, August 12, 2007

Open Government and Accountability is likely to be opposed

The Lansing State Journal angered many state employees when it published a database that included each employee and their salary.

Now there’s talk – just talk – that schools should do the same. It’s discussed in an interesting article:

Lansing State Journal: Privacy vs. openness: A delicate balance (08/12/07)

This is probably not welcome news to anyone that would be subjected to such a policy or law. It probably does feel like an invasion of privacy.

But, as one quote from the article points out,

"... such concerns aren't new.

"The exact same things were said when photographs started appearing in the press that were taken when a person had not posed and didn't necessarily represent them in the best light,"

The philosophical question is, as the headline suggests, a question of taxpayer-funded employee privacy versus the taxpayers’s right to know where their money is going.

The article covers a few of the risks, the most prominent being identity theft. But I believe there are laws that already protect the confidentiality of social security numbers and other private information. If not, then lawmakers could include that provision in any legislation.

And, granting access to this data is nothing new; taxpayers can already obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But that system is cumbersome and inefficient, which would be corrected by internet access.

What caught my eye was the great point offered by State Representative Dave Agema, R-Grandville:

"If people see what their money is being spent on and they can easily obtain it through their own personal computer, there's a greater degree of accountability, which forces those colleges more to toe the line," Agema said.

He acknowledged that university and school district employees could perceive that - the posting of their salaries in particular - as an invasion of privacy. But the benefits, he said, would be worth the cost.

"My goal is not so much the individual, it's the excesses," he said. "But the only way I can show the excesses is to show all the individuals."

I think this concept, as applied to public schools, would primarily help to shine a spotlight on the absurdity of the current pay structure, which is based on the number of days worked, and not on achievement or results.

People already know the system is ridiculous, but seeing it in writing is much more powerful.

One might argue that if this is truly good policy, then why isn’t it applied in private sector? Well, it already is. Salary information is available to the owners and managers of a company. In fact, a good manager will regularly look at – and compare – the salaries of employees to make sure that those who are most productive and effective are earning more, or at least seeing their wages increase faster.

The concept discussed in the LSJ article provides a means for the “owners” of the school system – the taxpayers -- to make similar evaluations of not just employee salaries, but of the managers that are responsible for setting the compensation of district employees and of the elected officials responsible for overseeing the system.

Of course, they’ll come up with other excuses to oppose this idea, but it’s this “accountability factor” that will cause the education establishment to vigorously oppose this step towards a more open government.

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