In 2015, the Alberta government extended coverage for disclosure of public servant salaries (aka the sunshine list) to those who make more than $125,000 per year. The new legislation was celebrated by all political parties as a victory for “transparency” and “open government”, and the right of taxpayers to know how public money is being spent. The legislative record is replete with these platitudes yet devoid of any specific policy objective.
When Ontario created their list back in 1996, the immediate goal seemed to be to shame public servants as a prelude to government cutbacks. If the longer term objective was to reduce public sector salaries, however, this has failed miserably as the list has grown twenty-five fold since. I suspect that Alberta’s NDP government’s objective, if it has indeed thought of one, might have been for it to act as a downward pressure on exorbitant salaries. Indeed this government has since (to their credit) reigned in the obscene salaries and benefits given to some heads of public agencies, boards and commissions.
But it is far from clear that the sunshine list has beneficial effects. Critics have noted that the information may be used as a bargaining chip to increase salaries of similarly situated employees who earn less; or it may lower morale and productivity when employees find out that others – perceived as less productive or useful –make as much or more. So far there is no evidence that salaries have significantly changed downward since the advent of the list. What seems apparent is that disclosure of raw compensation data – without more – elicits visceral reactions particularly at the highest end. When the list is published, there is a headline or two about the biggest winners in the public sector compensation games, followed by outrage, and then thing go back to the way they were.
One problem may be that the sunshine list information is incomplete. As articulated here, one of the problems of these lists is that they fail to provide any metric of value. How are we to know whether a university president or professor, for example, is being overpaid or their salaries are excessive if we don’t know what they do for it? Despite what the politicians say, this absence of context means the public does not know why or how their tax money is being spent; what’s more it potentially tarnishes the reputation of public servants who some might deem as being overpaid.
It would be simplistic to suggest that everything about a civil servant’s employment should be subject to public scrutiny. There may confidential information or intellectual property interests deserving or protection. Evaluations or opinions about job performance may be inaccurate and biased and unfairly prejudicial to an employee and thus should not be disclosed. All of this is rightfully excluded according to privacy legislation. But self-assessments of job performance, where the public servant is required to disclose their activities, projects and accomplishments for a given year, is a value metric that should be disclosed. The public has a right to be informed, in the employees own words, how they justify the pay they receive.
In the university setting I work in, faculty members are required to complete annual report forms that are used to dish out merit awards of a few thousand dollars. These reports require us to reveal what courses we taught, how many articles or books we published and where, how we disseminated our research, which administrative duties we undertook as well as other basic non-confidential and non-proprietary information.
As basic as this information is, however, Alberta’s privacy legislation, as currently interpreted, prevents it from being disclosed. In a 2009 case, the Alberta Queen’s Court upheld the privacy commissioner’s office ruling that the mere release of statistical information about the number of publications of a faculty member was a violation of their privacy. Imagine that. We get to know how much money a particular faculty member makes yet not how many publications (the main part of their job and decidedly less personal information) they created to deserve that salary.
For most public servants at the lower end of the sunshine list, it probably does not make sense to create special reporting requirements that do not currently exist for other purposes. For these cases, an amendment of privacy legislation to disclose this information might do the trick. For higher tier public servants (say above a quarter million dollars per year) some system of work value disclosure should be contemplated.
In any event, some thought should be given to making the sunshine list more meaningful as a check on compensation. As it currently stands, it does not seem to do much.