Our first government transparency project: public payrolls

A searchable and sortable breakdown of salaries within every State of Nebraska department.

We have added something pretty neat to our site. 

If you click on our main menu, you’ll see a section called “Resources.”  There, you will find our first resource: Public payrolls.

It’s a good one.

That link takes you to a breakdown of salaries within every department in the State of Nebraska, from the Department of Health and Human Services ($200 million in base salaries alone) to the Dry Bean Commission (a one-person department with a payroll of $47,736).

You can click a department to see a chart with the distribution of salaries there, as well as a list of the top earners. Each employee has a page, where you can see their start date and another chart showing how they fit into the broader departmental breakdown. Everything is searchable and sortable and easy to use.

Part of our mission here at the Flatwater Free Press is to do rigorous data- and document-driven reporting, the way reporters have been doing for years. In the course of doing that work, reporters amass all sorts of primary source information. Reports. Emails. Studies. Databases. Photos. Charts.

In the past, it was enough for reporters to comb through that stuff, cherry pick the most interesting bits and report out a story. These days we can do more. With unlimited Internet real estate, we can make those source records available to you.

Journalistically, it’s the right thing to do. We are taking public information about how taxpayer dollars are spent — the same information we use to report stories — and making it as easy to navigate as we can. In the process, we build an easy way to show our work. Any time we do a story about an official who is in our database, we can link to that person’s page so you can get a broader picture of how they fit into the bureaucracy.

A screenshot of the page showing Health & Human Services agency payroll data. Find these salaries and more at the Flatwater Free Press public payrolls project: salaries.flatwaterfreepress.org

Over time, we’ll continue adding new government entities to this project. We’ll request and publish salaries from cities, counties, natural resource districts, public utilities and more for as long as we can justify the expense. 

We’ll also look for opportunities to publish other source information. Right now, we’re in search of a sponsor for a tool that would make campaign finance data more easily navigable and in greater context than what is available through Nebraska’s Accountability and Disclosure Commission. We will publish primary documents we come across during our reporting using DocumentCloud. We have several other long-term database plans, as well.

We understand that publishing salaries can be sensitive. But when it comes to taxpayer money, we will always err in favor of transparency. Journalism isn’t about being polite. In these cases, we believe the public interest in how taxpayer money is spent outweighs ideas of propriety.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t new to the news business. When I was at the Omaha World-Herald, we published salary information for a variety of governments across the state for several years. I did the same thing in Arizona and Missouri when I worked there, as have hundreds of newsrooms across the country. It’s a simple first step to living up to Flatwater Free Press’ watchdog mission.

This project would not have been possible without the help of two very different groups who both deserve serious credit.

First, the Platte Institute, an economic policy think tank based in Omaha that advocates to reduce taxes, cut government spending and eliminate regulations. The Platte Institute underwrote the costs associated with the data acquisition and cleaning, as well as development and hosting of the tool. 

Second, the fine folks over at Code for Nebraska, a group of civically minded coders who program in the public interest. The crew there built the API and frontend, allowing us to make this happen at an astonishingly fast pace. Special shoutout to Erik Dodge, who put up with endless meetings, phone calls and feature requests with the patience of Job.

We’re thrilled be able to offer you this resource. Check it out here.

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.