Winders: Transparency more than a list

I know people love The List.

Back in the pre-Internet days, I worked for many newspapers that published an annual salary edition. In it, readers would find the pay of every public sector employee in the coverage area. We didn’t set an artificial salary line; we ran them all over pages of fine print. People would scour The List in search of friends, neighbours and enemies.

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WINDERS

For weeks afterward, the calls and letters would flood in with opinions ranging from ‘How dare you run my salary’ to ‘I can’t believe how much that person makes.’ It was a circus we presented in the name of transparency, but enjoyed with a sinister voyeuristic glee.

Truthfully, I found it to be an annual exercise without benefit. And I still do.

Over the last week, I have watched with a tinge of pained nostalgia as Ontario public employee salaries made the rounds via the ‘Sunshine List’ in annual accordance with the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act of 1996. The same reactions I have seen for years followed, each sound and finances signifying nothing.

Gonna share a secret: There are overpaid people in every industry – public and private. Shocking, I realize. But with the post-Sunshine List chest-thumping, you would assume all the loose money in Ontario was spent on the public sector lay-abouts.

But like many of you, I have worked in the private sector and know it’s not the fiscally responsible Shangri-La sold to the public by politicians, business leaders and even CBC on-air personalities.

The latter posing the most interesting group to me. These are public employees who, due to the absence of a federal Sunshine List, dodge having their salaries made public. Yet the CBC – be it through multi-show personality Kevin O’Leary calling for the jailing of union leaders or the senile ramblings of bloodsport pitchman Don Cherry – is one of the loudest public sector critics.

But consistency, when it comes to public sector employee critics, isn’t a strong suit.

Is there money being poorly spent in the public sector? Even at Western? Absolutely. In any organization of this university’s size – bigger than the town I grew up in – there are bound to be efficiencies opportunities.

But I have also watched newspaper CEOs, ones who loved to use the editorial pages of their newspapers to rail against government waste and public sector salaries, throw money away on unnecessary executive extravagance. Did my old boss really need to keep that second airplane at the expense of 150 employees companywide? Where was the outrage?

Heck, it wasn’t until federal bailout funds poured into the banks did anyone question the salaries or robber-baron profits of the produce-nothing financial services industry.

I always question a society that is quick to complain about educator salaries, but cheer on ever-inflating professional sports salaries. No matter how you cut it, the NHL’s top player is still making 40-times our top player. Is there no place to discuss the role in society these jobs play?

Once a valued tool for transparency, The List’s release has become an exercise in public shadow boxing – lots of punches thrown, nothing landed. The fact The List hasn’t been adjusted for inflation shows the thing is about comparing and gossiping rather than accounting. Yes, 100K is a lot of money to most people, but would any economist use 16-year-old numbers to define the present?

My problem is we are distracted by numbers without context when we should be focused on the performances which earn those numbers. The question to ask isn’t ‘Why do you earn that much?’ but ‘What do you do to earn that much?’

In that answer, you’ll find solutions to spending problems. But we don’t. We look at the numbers, complain and move on.

In the age of e-everything, where I can order everything from books to hockey stick Rattan-style seating via the Internet, I find it quite old-fashioned the government puts itself through this every year. Create a website, maintain the salary database and let visitors view the numbers whenever they wish.

True financial transparency and accountability are ongoing, not annual. The government needs to quit this silly circus. Believe me, I’ve been the ringmaster of a similar show, and it doesn’t do any good except filling a few minutes of airtime or lots of pages in a few newspapers.