Why is the U.S. government withholding salary information on nearly 255,000 employees whose salaries are paid for by American taxpayers?
Over the past 11 years, our organization, OpenTheBooks.com, summed up and posted online the salaries and bonus information for nearly every person employed in federal government agencies – a tally that mostly keeps growing and growing.
This year, our auditors filed our standard Freedom of Information Act request for the same information in Fiscal Year 2017 – and we got a big surprise.
For the first time, the government’s response involved massive and targeted deletions of salary data. A total of 254,839 federal salaries were removed from the Civil Service payroll. That’s a huge increase from the 3,416 salaries redacted in total in Fiscal Year 2016.
Considering that there are 1.35 million people employed by executive agencies, about one out of every five salaries are now hidden from the public.
In military terms, that’s the headcount equivalent of 17 Army divisions. It’s about equal to the urban population of Buffalo, New York, or Madison, Wisconsin.
Worst of all, it’s an affront to taxpayers who have the right to know who makes how much and in what position in the federal bureaucracy. It’s our money, and we should be able to follow it.
What we can’t follow now is truly a mammoth sum. We calculated – using median salaries for the departmental numbers the government did cough up – that's about $20 billion in total federal payroll costs now lacks transparency. The number could be lower, of course – but it could also be a lot higher.
The disappearing people and money came from all over the government: no fewer than 68 federal departments redacted salaries. Even small agencies like the National Transportation Services Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation joined the disappearing act.
The biggest numbers, however, came from areas like the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Office of Personnel Management. In the past, the feds produced nearly all the salaries from these agencies.
These redactions didn’t blackout secret positions at the CIA or other intelligence agencies (we didn’t even ask for those) – but rather staffers employed by non-secret agencies. They include 51,000 “compliance inspectors and support staff” who work for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
In other words, many of the employees whose salaries are being kept secret are TSA agents performing airport baggage screenings and pat-downs. Disclosing these salaries – or any of the others – doesn’t trigger national security concerns.
Here’s a sample of other positions with hidden salaries: 13,000 Internal Revenue Service agents and officers; 7,500 miscellaneous program administrators, clerks, and assistants; 5,800 lawyers; and 1,500 information technology managers.
The feds redacted salaries even in more innocuous positions: 267 student trainees at assorted agencies, 92 public affairs officers and 62 photographers.
We strongly believe that transparency in government is crucial – especially at agencies where performance and hiring priorities have come under scrutiny.
This year, more than 6,600 salaries were redacted at the often-stumbling Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the past few years, just one in 10 of newly added VA positions were actually doctors. In Fiscal Year 2017, just 6 percent of the VA’s 8,727 new hires were doctors – according to the data not blacked out.
Less transparency means less government accountability. These redactions hinder your ability to examine the salaries of civil servants in your own neighborhood. Over the past two years, we literally mapped the bureaucratic swamp by ZIP code, pinning all federal disclosed bureaucrats by employer location on our interactive map for Fiscal Year 2016.
Not this year. We can’t map what we can’t see.
Who made the call to redact these salaries, at a time when President Trump has been calling for a downsized federal workforce and a greater emphasis on performance?
It wasn’t a Trump appointee. The president doesn’t yet have an executive nominee in place at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where the salary numbers reside. Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan, a 25-year staffer, heads up the office because she was next in line – not because the White House appointed her.
In their closing letter to our salary request, OPM made no legal argument in passing along the abbreviated information to us. Only after we asked the agency about the missing information did a representative issue a response.
In essence, it said the government wouldn’t release the information because it was, well, too local. As the reply put it, in far too many words:
“On an ongoing basis, OPM reviews its methods for creating data files to ensure consistency with its Data Release Policy governing the release of records related to federal employees in positions or agencies that require location information to be redacted. Because the Adjusted Basic Salary field (in those records) contains locality pay, OPM recently began redacting this information for certain classes of employees, hence the drop that your IT department noticed.”
This didn’t make much sense, so we asked again. You can read the agency’s next attempt at a response via its spokesperson here.
Last December, we showcased the bureaucracy President Trump inherited: 1.97 million Civil Service employees costing about $137 billion a year (including the U.S. Post Office). That expense worked out to $1.1 million per minute.
We also found a 165 percent growth in bureaucrats making $200,000 or more; 30,000 rank-and-file employees out-earning all 50 governors at $190,000; and the average salary at 78 agencies exceeding $100,000.
Now, with its newly minted excuses, the bureaucracy itself is trying to fight back against open government. We don’t think taxpayers, legislators or the president should allow them to get away with it.
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Adam Andrzejewski is the CEO & founder of OpenTheBooks.com, a non-profit, nonpartisan government financial watchdog group.