Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wants to know why federal employee salary information is suddenly being barred from release under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Committee sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) last week pressing the agency for information as to why there seems to have been a policy shift with respect to what federal employee names and salaries are released.
Gowdy wrote in his letter to OPM Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan:
The Committee recently learned specific salary information previously released to Open the Books for the past eleven years was not released by OPM for fiscal year 2017. In response to Open the Books fiscal year 2017 FOIA request, OPM redacted 254,839 federal salaries, resulting in $20 billion in estimated payroll now lacking transparency. The additional redactions, which are significant, have been attributed to a data release policy update.
Open the Books founder and CEO Adam Andrzejewski publicized the situation with OPM redacting the salary data in an editorial last month, and it apparently got the House Committee’s attention. He noted that OPM’s response to one of his organization’s inquiries was as follows:
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 contains locality pay, OPM recently began redacting this information for certain classes of employees, hence the drop that your IT department noticed.
When pressed, the agency ultimately blamed the redactions on a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and cited FOIA exemption 6. This exemption states that “personnel and medical files and similar files” are what would potentially constitute exemption.
Andrzejewski also said in his editorial that OPM has been releasing the salary data for the past 11 years to his organization, so it did not make sense to him why they were suddenly being withheld now. Last year, for instance, Open the Books published the findings from its analysis of FY 2016 federal employee salary data.
“This year’s massive increase in redactions wasn’t a result of new policy, but a reinterpretation of existing policy,” wrote Andrzejewski.
FedSmith has met similar resistance from OPM with our salary data requests as well. The FY 2017 salary data at FedsDataCenter.com are half the size of the data that were released in FY 2016. One key difference: in past years, salaries were provided with DoD employees even though their names were withheld; for FY 2017, the salaries were redacted also, making the data worthless.
Gowdy told OPM in his letter that the situation raised questions for the House Oversight Committee as well. He wrote, “OPM’s response to this FOIA request for federal employee salary information raises questions. Either OPM has been in error for the last eleven years or it is now.”
He went on to ask OPM to provide documentation showing all correspondence related to the Open the Books FOIA request and all documentation related to OPM’s change in FOIA policy.
OPM, however, denied doing anything differently with the data request from Open the Books than it had done in previous years.
An agency spokesperson told McClatchy that OPM has not increased the number of redactions of base salaries from previous years, but instead only excluded certain adjusted base salaries in the new data release “to prevent the identities and duty stations of those who work in sensitive occupations or work for security agencies from being revealed.”
“What OPM intends to do from now on, is release base salary information for those employees whose adjusted base salaries are protected from release, with a better explanation of the reasoning,” the spokesperson said.
History of Releasing Federal Employee Salaries
FedSmith.com author Ralph Smith offered an interesting analysis of federal employee salaries and the history behind how and when they have been released by the government to the public.
Smith noted that the practice dates back to 1816 when the first entry in the Federal Register listed James Madison as president of the United States at a salary of $25,000 and that his birthplace was in Virginia.
Clearly though, the federal government does not like having this information available and has more recently started to clamp down on what it releases. In addition to what Open the Books ran into, Smith noted in his article that starting in 2003, OPM broke the government’s long-standing precedent on releasing the data when it started withholding records of civilian employees of the Defense Department as well as the name and duty locations of another 150,000 other civilian workers. This was according to a lawsuit filed over the matter.
It will be interesting to see how the situation plays out and if the House Committee’s inquiry will lead to any policy changes. Presumably, OPM will keep using its own judgment on how to handle releasing the data unless or until a court forces the agency to do otherwise.