Does Transparency Lead to Pay Compression?


This paper asks whether disclosing wages to the public changes wage setting at the top of the public sector income distribution. I evaluate a 2010 California mandate that required cities to submit municipal salaries to the State, to be posted on a public website. City managers—typically the highest paid employees—in cities that had not previously disclosed salaries experienced average compensation declines of approximately 8 percent relative to cities where at the time of the mandate manager wages were already in the public domain. This decline was largely accomplished through nominal pay cuts. The wage cuts were not the result of relatively greater financial stress, as the overall wage bill did not diverge between these sets of cities. Wages were cut irrespective of whether or not they were out of line with (measured) fundamentals. Consequently, the residual variance of manager wages did not decline. Following new disclosure the city manager quit rate increased by 75 percent, suggesting that transparency pressured cities to lower the wages that were already close to reservation levels. The evidence is more consistent with a “populist” response to perceptions of excessive salaries than with the effects of increased accountability.

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