September 9, 2008 By Paul W. Taylor
My successor in state service earns $121,920 a year. My boss' successor earns $137,160. They are doing better than we did -- how much better is a matter of public record. But a decade ago when I was on the public payroll, public employees' salary records enjoyed a level of obscurity because they were bound in a book that sat on a shelf behind the counter.
With the rise of the commodity Internet, self-styled government accountability activists predictably began to post that information online. These efforts tended to use public disclosure laws to obtain flat files, which produced static tables that didn't lend themselves to robust search or comparison.
Enter XML and third parties -- daily newspapers chief among them -- that made the data more widely available and provided tools for more sophisticated display and interrogation. For example, The Sacramento Bee recently created a firestorm of controversy in the California capital when it posted public employees' salary information on its Web site -- by name, title and department.
The debate that followed pitted those who claimed it was a reckless action in an age of rampant identity theft versus taxpayer advocates who claimed a public right to know.
Such local skirmishes have flared up across the country, but tend to get resolved without much fanfare, and as a result, maintain the appearance of containment. That's largely and increasingly an illusion. What if an Internet startup were to do for salary information what Zillow did for real estate values (through secondary use of public property tax records) and Expedia did for travel arrangements? We are about to find out.
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