CookCountyEmployees.com and the limited value of transparency

On Monday, Cook County Commissioner Tony released his “transparency project,” CookCountyEmployees.com, a data base of names and salaries of some 25,000 County employees. Via Twitter, Peraica announced it as an “online database of county employees/vendors;” on Youtube he said it was “so that you know how your money is being spent” Peraica has stood out on the ethically-challenged Board for his crusade against corruption, and in favor of openness and “transparency.” He offers live reports, via Twitter, of Commission meetings, and uses YouTube to draw attention to the fiscal shenanigans of his colleagues on the Board.

Peraica’s goo-goo credentials are not in question. I do wonder, though, of the efficacy, and manners, of making publicly accessible a data base of County employees’ names and salaries. As Dan O’Neil, himself a leader in drive to make government data available and usable, often points out that most government employees do honest work that improves our lives. But I’m uncomfortable with the degree of transparency that CCE provides– the personal information almost feels hostile, and doesn’t carry with it the sense of appreciation and “gratitude” that undergirds related projects. More pragmatically, what value is it to me to know what nurse clinician B. Alston earns? Would it be more useful to know if she’s had any complaints, or commendations, filed recently? Of course, it I know she’s a Commissioner’s niece (she’s not, as far as I know), that could be interesting. As Carl Nyberg points out, however, “without knowing how people are connected, the data doesn’t tell the full story.”

The Internet’s potential for making government more open and responsive is of course exciting– even more so for those of us in Chicago. Perhaps my concerns about CookCountyEmployees.com and transparency are prosaic; perhaps they derive from the fact that I work in a sector that bends more to the opaque. In any case, we’re early in this government transparency game. In the end, we may decide that not all information is useful, or appropriate, to share.

[Update: On a higher plane, Joi Ito is doing some important out-loud thinking about innovation and government.]

[Update II: Thanks, GB, for the point. Related thoughts on efficacy of transparency, here.]

7 thoughts on “CookCountyEmployees.com and the limited value of transparency

  1. This is a case study in how data w/o any context can become at best meaningless to at worst, as you said, hostile. I’m curious to see if anyone is actually going to do anything with this information – my bet is that this will be remembered as a transparency flash in the pan.

  2. The Better Government Association has had a payroll database up for a while. Visitorship to their site skyrocketed. Most of the traffic is probably the very employees whose salaries are posted on the site. This is public information. The hope is that by making it more easily accessible, state and municipal managers will do a better job and there will be less cronyism and fewer high salaried jobs for the do-nothings.

    http://www.bettergov.org/Login.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2fResearch%2fDefault.aspx

    1. Mike, thanks for the link. Added points to Peraica, for giving us a site that doesn’t force us to sign up for a spam list before being permitted to access the public information. How much would traffic have skyrocketed without that hoop to jump through?

  3. I don’t understand what’s hostile about it. In fact, I’ve never understood why Americans view salary information as so private. I think that all gov’t salary info should be made public. For one thing it encourages a more fair payscale (if a colleague of mine with similar responsibilies makes twice as much money, I’ll make noise about it). Also, it lets journalists and the general public know how much money public officials make from legit sources. If I’m a journalist and know that a city official makes $70,000 but has a $300k a year lifestyle then I’ll start investigating.

    This particular set of information might not reveal any corruption – hopefully it won’t. But I certainly don’t see it as hostile. Are you suggesting that the morale of city employees will go down if their salary is available online?

    1. The hostility I perceive is based on Peraica’s record as not merely a reformer, but as someone who seems not to like government very much– or so I gather from listening to him for a few years and reading hi tweets. I suspect that his goal is not limited to advocating for a just pay scale; at some level I think that he wants to expose public employees to scorn.

      I wasn’t thinking of morale, but on Fbook, a friend noted “it’s a double edged sword…the environment became so tense once we all knew what each other made.” Considering all the layoffs and furloughs here, the impact may not be much.

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