Originally posted at Cal Watchdog.
By John Hrabe.

Federal officials continue to reshuffle the management of Healthcare.gov, with Kurt DelBene, a former president of the Microsoft Office Division, tapped as the new point person for the troubled Obamacare website.

If DelBene fails to deliver, President Obama should call California State Controller John Chiang.

With no additional state budget funds or expanded statutory authority, Chiang has quietly built one of the nation’s most effective government websites, which has now registered more than 6.9 million page views. The website, publicpay.ca.gov, publishes public employee payroll data for hundreds of thousands of public employees in California and has become an important tool for citizen watchdogs and members of the press.

Chiang’s website, unlike the federal government’s web debacle, is earning universal praise from good government groups, taxpayer advocates and state lawmakers.

Open government advocate: Website informs public about cost to taxpayers

Terry Francke, one of the state’s leading open government advocates, said the website has become an important tool for informing the public about the cost of government.

“You really have to visit this marvelous site and play with the knobs and buttons to appreciate how much information it contains and equally, the kind of analysis it permits about how much employees and executives get in pay and benefits throughout state and local government in California — and the cost to the taxpayer of those figures,” said Francke, general counsel of the open government advocacy group, Californians Aware.

In 2010, following the high-profile corruption case at the City of Bell, Chiang didn’t wait around for local governments to clean up their act. He ordered cities, counties and special districts, under Government Code sections 12463 and 53892, to share salary and other wage information with his office. Initially, some local governments balked, then dragged their feet in disclosing the payroll data. Three years later, the State Controller’s office now boasts a 99% compliance rate.

On Monday, Chiang’s office published its latest payroll update to the employee compensation website, adding payroll data for 637,435 city and county employees who collected more than $38.86 billion in wages in 2012. Just three cities, San Mateo, Compton and Calimesa, failed to file a timely report, and the Controller’s office says those cities are working to comply.

“Making compensation of public employees transparent provides taxpayers with the ability to be more informed and active in local government decisions,” Chiang said in a press release about the recent update.


Chiang’s update comes on the heels of a new web redesign that gives the public tools to search, analyze and compare payroll data across government agencies. Perhaps more important than the expanded search functions and custom report-building tools, it has embraced full transparency by publishing all of the raw data files on its website.

At first blush, the December 2013 update, with payroll data for more than a half-million public employees, sounds like a massive undertaking. It’s become routine for the Controller’s office. In October, the Controller’s office added wage and benefit data for 149,342 public employees who received $4.3 billion in wages and $930 million of reported health and retirement benefits in 2012.  In August, it was uploading more data for 341,475 positions with more than $17.5 billion in wages paid in 2012.

To make sense of all the data, Chiang’s office, after consulting with reporters and watchdog groups, developed tools that allow users to quickly identify the top earners at cities, counties and other local governments. In the most recent update, the 10 highest-paid local government officials in California earned a whopping $6.6 million in total compensation. Arturo Gomez, a Kern Medical Center orthopedic surgeon, topped the list with $1.04 million in compensation in 2012.

The custom search tools also make it easy for newspapers to identify trends and high salaries at local government agencies. For example, the three highest-paid county employees in 2012 were all at the same Kern Medical Center, a fact highlighted by the Bakersfield Californian.

That’s the type of information that catches the eye of the state’s leading taxpayer advocate.

“We welcome any information readily available to taxpayers to see how their tax dollars are being spent,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “We suspect many hardworking Californians are going to be shocked at some of the gold-plated compensation packages given in their cities and counties. This may, in fact, make voters less receptive to higher taxes.”

Sen. Norma Torres: Example for other government agencies

Members of the legislature, including a member of the state’s fiscal review and budget committee, praise the website for helping save taxpayers money.

“The public pay database is an example of the kind of transparency government agencies should be striving to achieve,” said state Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, who serves on the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.  “As an innovative state we should be utilizing the best tools available to make information public.”

It took 55 government contractors and $394 million in taxpayer funds to build President Obama’s online health insurance marketplace. In contrast, the Controller’s office built their website, during the state’s worst budget deficits, without any new funds from the Legislature, another reason its earning rave reviews.

Controller John ChiangController John Chiang

“Government’s investment in technology can be used not just to increase transparency, but help to make it more efficient,” said Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier. “Technology is an extremely underutilized tool.”

The payroll data include information on the salary and other compensation of public employee positions in cities, counties and special districts. The data also include compensation information for employee positions in state government that are paid by the controller, including: state employees; the California State University; legislators; and state-wide elected officials.

More data

Open government advocates, such as Francke, want even more data.

“Two conspicuously absent sectors — school districts and courts — will, one hopes, show up before long,” said Francke. “But for now, this is a huge contribution to keeping Californians aware of where much of their taxes go — and for what.”

Jacob Roper, a spokesman for Chiang, said that the controller’s office is currently working with special districts and the University of California system to publish payroll data. However, local school district payroll data is limited by state law.