Three Steps Toward a More Transparent Government
It’s national Sunshine Week across America, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors. It’s a week for government watchdog groups like ours, OpenTheBooks.com, as well as journalists, to call for open government and transparency.
Much of the information we uncover isn’t pretty, which is why so many government officials prefer to keep some things hidden. Consider what we learned this year about federal employees: There are 30,000 rank-and-file federal employees out-earning every governor of the 50 states. At 78 large federal agencies, average pay exceeded $100,000. Federal employees, on average, received 43 days of paid time off – that’s 8.5 weeks a year.
That’s what we know. What we don’t know, and can’t see, is even more troubling. The Trump administration should take three simple steps to shine light on spending that is still in the shadows.
1. Stop redacting federal salaries
The federal government is withholding salary information on nearly 255,000 civil service employees whose paychecks are funded by American taxpayers. That’s unacceptable.
Over the past 11 years, our organization captured and posted online the salary and bonus information for nearly every person employed in federal government agencies. This year, however, the feds redacted 254,839 salaries from the federal payroll – that’s a huge increase from the 3,416 salaries missing in fiscal year 2016.
Approximately one out of every five salaries is now hidden from the public. We estimate about $20 billion in federal payroll lacks transparency.
2. Open the books on $1.1 billion in federal performance bonuses
In fiscal year 2016, the federal government awarded approximately 1 million performance bonuses, costing $1.1 billion. Every cent, however, was hidden from the taxpayers who foot the bill.
The federal government discloses four types of bonuses: incentive, recruitment, relocation, and retention. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management disclosed 330,000 employees received bonuses for $351 million in total. But the largest bonus bucket – performance bonuses – was shielded from view by government union contracts.
Even small agencies gamed the bonus system. For example, the largest disclosed bonus didn’t go to a rocket scientist or a doctor researching a cure for cancer. Instead, a $141,525 bonus went to the human resources manager at a small land management agency in San Francisco called Presidio Trust. In fact, Presidio Trust gave out six of the top 10 largest federal bonuses over the last three years.
Imagine the wasteful practices we’d uncover if performance bonuses were subject to sunshine.
3. Make federal pensions transparent
What has a $3.5 trillion unfunded liability, is hand-calculated inside a windowless cave in Pennsylvania, and costs taxpayers more money annually than the entire state budget of Texas? Answer: federal employee pensions.
It’s estimated that federal pensions pay out $125 billion to retirees each year. Basic questions deserve answers: How many years were worked, how much money was paid-in and by whom, how quickly did they break-even on their own contributions, and just how much did the taxpayers finance?
At the state level, we have demonstrated the public interest benefit of illuminating pension data. In the 32 states that have pension transparency – including California, Illinois, New York and Oregon – citizens have exposed significant amounts of waste and mismanagement.
For example, a pair of union bosses in Illinois taught as substitutes for one day in public schools and then retired on $1 million lifetime teacher pensions. Despite a state law expressly designed to stop them, we found that they still received their pensions.
With relatively little transparency, we've found numerous examples of waste and abuse across the country. Consider what we’d find if we could see more.
Our right to know is codified in the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 9 reads, “A regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.”
Sunshine isn’t just a week – it’s our right. It’s time citizens demand it.