Matt Wynn on Tracking Government Salaries

Matt Wynn on Tracking Government Salaries

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Today on Nebraskanomics, I’m joined by Matt Wynn, the executive director of The Flatwater Free Press. Tune into our conversation to learn about government payroll reporting and more government transparency projects in Nebraska.

You can also listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Jim Vokal: Back in October of 2021, the Flatwater Free Press launched its first Government Transparency Project. The Platte Institute is a proud sponsor of that project, which is a searchable and sortable database of salaries within every state Nebraska department.

Why did your organization decide to develop this database, and how is that information being used? 

Matt Wynn: I mean, the why is really straightforward. Transparency is the lifeblood of democracy. If we’re not able to understand what our government is doing, how can we be expected to play a role in what it does, right? But that’s the theory of the whole thing. 

We’re super grateful that you guys are sponsors of that. I feel like you’ve always been behind these transparency efforts that I’ve done personally, even when I was at The World Herald. And I’ll be honest, the way it’s been used has kind of surpassed my wildest expectations.

The number of times that I see it coming up in the media around the state. People will talk about it saying, “this person left this post under interesting circumstances… how much were they paid?” That really can change a story. If they’re paid $45,000 is a little different than if they’re paid six figures plus.

It’s become a contextual point and it’s something that people can look to to answer quickly that question about how much these public servants make. 

The other bit that I’m excited about, is an addition that puts overtime in the reporting, as well. That was really eye-opening to me and to a lot of the folks who read it as well. Just how much people could augment their base pay through overtime.

I feel like that’s come up a lot as well, as people have covered it or written about their own servants and their area.

Jim: So who’s using this website? Who are the users on the other end, would you say? 

Matt: Yeah, it’s all over the place. I will say, I can tell every time that you guys send it out in a newsletter because we can see traffic spikes.

There’s a lot of journalists and other employees at the department. That’s been fascinating to me. It’s a cross section of people who are intrigued in how the government works and maybe how it could work better. 

We get feedback all the time from just regular Joe’s. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why they’re paying attention, but they’ll sort through there and they’ll find something that sticks out to them. 

One that I always go back to, is when we got a tip about two people who were hired on the same date by an agency or in a department that was run by their father. It was a pretty good tip. And It just came from somebody who sort of knew these people.

Jim: You recently announced some updates to the database. You want to walk us through what’s new and the information that’s been added? 

Matt: Yeah, I’m really excited about what we’re doing. As you and I had discussed, last year was the first volley that started with those state salaries and state overtime. Then, we wanted to build out from there. This is our first year where we’re making good on that promise.

Nebraska’s a big state. We’ve got 93 counties, we’ve got a couple hundred cities, so it’s tough to pick out where to go after those. We’ve decided to start with the five largest counties, so we picked those off. This includes the county governments like Douglas County, Lancaster County on down the line. 

I believe Buffalo is the fifth largest. Don’t hold me to that, but what we got is the same thing we got for the state: base pay and overtime for every single employee. We’ve done that. We made that update. We rolled it out last week and again, and already we’re seeing the people just kind of come poke out of their neck of the woods.

What’s really exciting this time around is you can see geographically how it bears out. We’ve got folks from Grand Island, Sarpy County, and they’re looking at the folks in their neck of the woods, which makes sense, but it’s gratifying. We touched on this before, but this project centers around the idea of transparency, which is an important principle here at the Platte Institute.

Jim: Can you speak to why transparency is important to your organization, the Flatwater Free Press?

Matt: Yeah, it’s how we get to do what we do. I hate to get all philosophical here with you, but that’s the whole belief. The press is in the First Amendment, freedom of the press. Part of that comes with the understanding that it’s there for a reason.

It’s there so we can hold our power accountable. Government is the power. We can’t do that without transparency. Whether it be salaries – which is pretty basic – the least we can do to track every dollar that’s spent.

I think contracts is another place I’d like to track. We need to understand the building blocks of how our government operates. We filed suit against one state agency because they wouldn’t give us certain emails. 

That’s how we keep an eye on our government. That’s how we as journalists do what we do. 

We have to have transparency in all these things. We have to be able to have them open the books, and we should be legally allowed to see those books open before us.

We believe in transparency because it’s how we do anything. If not for transparency, we would only be allowed to react to the press conference and always be in that reactionary mode to what the government thinks the story should be. And that’s not how this works. 

Jim: In your organization’s short tenure, the Flatwater Free Press has established itself as a pretty important voice in the Nebraska media landscape. What are some of the future plans for the organization and how can our listeners and audience get involved? 

Matt: Well, that’s really kind of you to say. I agree. It’s kind of blown away in my wildest expectations about what we can do. Our work is read by 500,000 Nebraskans week in and week out, which is astonishing to me. I thought it would take us years to reach that level, and here we are. 

Your audience can email to get involved. We look at every single one that comes through. We get a hundred tips a month from people with different stories that they think we should look into. Some of them are great, some of them aren’t so great. 

The list is kind of daunting. We only do 10 stories a month. We’re not your daily newspaper. We never aspire to be, and we’ll never get to tell all those tips that come through. But we do look at them. We make decisions based on them. 

That’s one way that I’d love your folks involved at Platte Institute to send in some tips. You can also subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Those are two ways that anyone can get involved in what we’re up to, and at least see what we’re doing. 

Jim: As we wrap this up, what are your future plans for the transparency website? What should our listeners expect as far as levels of government that might be encompassed with transparency? 

Matt: I mean, the sky’s the limit to what we can do. We’ll never achieve it, but my dream would be to update every single government each year. Including anything in the state of Nebraska: cities, school districts, university, and all down the line. 

That’s probably not realistic. As you know, the process, even forgetting the couple counties that we added this year is pretty arduous. And I’m not saying it’s not malfeasance in some cases, it’s just ignorance as to how to get that information from whatever systems they’re kept in. But, it’s a hard process with a lot of hand holding and I need to clean it up on the back end. 

If we were to do that for every single company in the scene, it would be more than a full-time job. We’d have a little army doing it, but I do think we want to make steps in that direction, year in and year out. That’s my goal. 

Jim: Matt, thanks for joining me today on Nebraskanomics and updating us on the transparency website and your important work. We certainly wish you much success and we look forward to our continued partner.

Matt: Thanks for having me!

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