Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Why do I hate the Sunshine List? It's just bad data

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Mon Mar 23 2015

I’ll be blunt: I hate the Sunshine List.

The list, published under the Ontario Public Salary Disclosure Act, discloses the names and earnings of all public-sector workers making more than $100,000 in salary and benefits.

Every year, the release of the list sparks a maelstrom of media and public attention. Last week, news that more than half of the employees with the Toronto Police Service would appear on the list sparked calls for inquiries and a review of police compensation.

I’m all for a review of police spending. I’ve argued for it repeatedly over the last few years. But this is the wrong reason to do it.

This is just bad data.

There are a bunch of obvious problems with the way the list works.

Since it was introduced in 1996, that $100,000 threshold has never been adjusted for inflation. If it had, only compensation in excess of about $142,000 would land you on the list.

More importantly, it’s not clear how the Sunshine List tells us anything about the efficiency or effectiveness of public organizations. Hypothetically, is a department with a total of 10 employees on the Sunshine List necessarily run worse than a company with 20 workers making less than $50,000 a year each?

Who can say, right? Aren’t there better measures of the public sector, such as whether it can deliver things on time and on budget?

For me, the worst part is that the list tends to perpetuate a race to the bottom. When someone hears of a similarly qualified person making a good salary, you would expect them to think, “Hey, maybe I deserve a raise.”

But too often the reaction is instead a call for the well-paid person to be paid less.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a big believer in governments using data to run things better, but it’s not clear that the data released through the Sunshine List has done that — or that it ever can.

In the case of the Toronto police, for example, there’s better data that points to a clear need for a review of spending. For instance, annual Criminal Code offences in Toronto have dropped by nearly 50 per cent over the past two decades, while the inflation-

adjusted police budget increased by about 29 per cent. We have more cops for less crime.

There’s an important conversation we could have about that. But it wouldn’t be a conversation centred on how much police officers should be paid. Really, I’d argue that people bestowed with a gun and the power to detain should be well-compensated.

Instead, it would be a conversation about how many cops Toronto needs to be safe. It would be about how big the police budget — Toronto’s single largest expense — should be.

Forget the Sunshine List. I would much rather talk about that.

This post was originally published at on 2015-03-23T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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