I hate to say it, but if you’re a stickler for privacy, a government job isn’t for you.
For starters, your salary is a matter of public record. In fact, most people could find it with just a few keystrokes if you’re among the hundreds of thousands of public employees in the Texas Tribune’s Government Salaries Explorer.
Your annual performance reviews? Public record.
Your emails and text messages, even from your personal email account and personal cell phone? Also public records, if the communication pertains to work.
And that embarrassing reprimand for filing work orders with fake names like “Dick Hertz” and “Ima Dumas” is not only a public record, but it’s likely to earn you some media attention.
Point is, when you work in the public sector, you work for the public. Whether you’re fielding complaints about soaring water bills or scrutinizing rezoning applications, you’re handling matters of public interest. We have a right to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
Above all, we expect your actions serve the public good, not a personal agenda.
So I was disappointed to learn the city employees’ union is pushing against a long-overdue effort to require Austin employees to disclose their second jobs. The city’s human resources director originally promised such a policy last fall, but opposition from the local AFSCME has stymied the effort.
“As long as employees who work for the city of Austin show up for work on time and are doing their job, we feel like what they do on their off hours is their business,” Carol Guthrie, the local AFSCME ’s business manager, recently told Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell. “Many employees have to have two, sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. They’re proud people who don’t want people to know they subsidize their family that way.”
OK, first of all, there’s no shame in picking up extra work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates one in 20 workers has a second job, with dual-earners evenly dispersed among age groups and over-represented among college grads. Findell’s previous reporting shows some city workers are making extra bucks as pilates instructors, barbers, H-E-B baggers, ride-hailing drivers and real estate agents, among other professions.
I bet the vast majority of these second jobs pose no conflict with workers’ duties at City Hall. But the only way to know is to have full transparency. A librarian who moonlights as a Realtor probably isn’t a problem, but a Development Services worker dabbling in private real estate raises ethical issues.
These self-dealing concerns are not hypothetical. Last year an auditor’s office investigation found an Austin Energy employee responsible for approving developers’ electric service plans was also working as a consultant for some of those projects. Another investigation found an Austin Water employee approved an online marketing campaign with the same firm that gave him a free website for his side hustle in real estate.
As Findell has reported, only a third of Austin’s 36 departments require employees to notify a supervisor about their outside employment, and not all of them keep the information in a centralized, easily accessible format for the public to see. That’s unacceptable in a city that prides itself on transparent government. It’s also out of step with other Texas cities.
Houston requires its city workers fill out a form and get the approval of their department director for any outside gig. Fort Worth has a similar form, and San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington likewise require workers to get their department head’s approval in writing before starting a second job.
Not only does this disclosure provide transparency, but it ensures there’s a conversation between worker and boss about any potential conflicts of interest.
That’s a better safeguard than Austin’s current policy, which simply prohibits employees from taking a second job that poses a conflict of interest or interferes with their city duties — and largely leaves that call up to the employee, except in specific departments that require notification. Even the proposed policy being drafted by Austin’s HR director doesn’t go far enough: Employees’ second-job disclosures would be noted in their personnel file, but there would be no centralized place for the public to look up that information, rendering this open-government gesture largely hollow.
I don’t begrudge city workers earning extra money on the side; in fact, I applaud their talents and drive. I do think a full disclosure policy, commonplace in other large Texas cities, protects employees as well as the city. It puts everything on the table, so there aren’t surprises down the line about whether an employee’s second job poses a problem.
Austin and its workers should embrace this kind of transparency, in full view of the public. When you work for the government, it’s just part of doing business.