The public has a right to know the racial and ethnic demographics of all of the approximately 90,000 public employees whose payrolls are processed by the state comptroller, according to a ruling by the state’s supervisor of Records.
Diversity and inclusion advocates hailed the ruling as a breakthrough that will allow independent analysis of government’s pledges to diversify its historically white workforce, but Governor Charlie Baker’s administration and Comptroller Thomas G. Shack III remained hesitant to comply with the decision.
The data include racial and ethnic information about individual employees who work for scores of state, county, and quasipublic agencies that have often been unwilling to release raw demographic information.
“Transparency is critically important” if state government is serious about increasing diversity, said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP. “The best way for us to assess that is to analyze the [raw] data. This is a good thing for all of us.”
Officials had 10 days to produce the data or ask the Supervisor of Records to reconsider.
“We haven’t made an ultimate determination whether we are going to release the information yet,” Shack said in an interview. “We’re taking a balanced approach by making sure we’re not putting anyone in harm’s way.”
In a statement, a Baker spokeswoman echoed Shack’s concerns and cited “the potential increased likelihood of identity theft and personal security of state employees associated with releasing personally identifiable information.”
The Boston Globe originally requested the data under the state’s public record laws for a story that documented the absence of black people and other people of color from positions of power in Massachusetts. Shack and Baker’s administration cited the risk to public safety, terrorism, and other concerns, to withhold records detailing the race and ethnicity information for the state’s workforce.
The Globe appealed to the Supervisor of Records, which rejected the arguments for withholding the data in a written ruling released Monday.
“The [Comptroller’s] Office has not provided ‘sufficient factual heft’ to conclude that a reasonable person would agree that disclosure of ethnic and race data is ‘likely to jeopardize public safety or cybersecurity,’ ” wrote the supervisor, Rebecca S. Murray.
In an interview, Shack could not provide an example of a public employee harmed by the release of their race with name, title, and salary as part of a government payroll.
Diversity advocates such as former Boston city councilor Charles C. Yancey also did not understand how data identifying employees as white, black, Latino, or Asian would make them more susceptible to identity theft, terrorism, or other harm.
Yancey received payroll data that included race for more than 30 years at City Hall because he made it his mission to hold mayoral administrations accountable for hiring, raises, and promotions for people of color in city government.
“I’m not aware of any instance of anyone being harmed by the release of information identifying what race or ethnicity they belong to,” Yancey said Wednesday.
“It’s essential if you really want to track the data to be sure you have accurate information. If you don’t have the name linked with the race [or ethnicity], many games can be played,” he added.
Without the names of employees, an analysis could be subject to undercounting or double-counting, Yancey said.
The former city councilor also described cases in which the same employee was listed on payrolls for more than one department.
“You can’t figure that out,” Yancey said, “unless you have the individual names.”
If Baker and Shack ultimately refuse to release the data, the Globe could file a lawsuit.
The newspaper won a nearly identical case in 2016 and forced Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston to release the same information.
The Globe requested the state data for a story that was part of a Spotlight series on racism that highlighted the absence of diversity in the state’s corporate, civic, and political power structure. Massachusetts’s 11-member congressional delegation is entirely white.
Baker and the state’s five other constitutional officers are all white. The governor’s nine-member Cabinet includes only one person of color. Shack and the comptroller’s six-member advisory board are also entirely white, according to government websites.
Much of the requested payroll data is already published on the comptroller’s website, including employees’ names, title, department, and pay.
The Globe also asked for date of hire, date of most recent raise, union status, and race or ethnicity.
The newspaper made the same request to dozens of city and town governments in Greater Boston, and almost all provided the data, including Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville.
The request rejected by the state covered payrolls from scores of agencies, including State Police, Baker’s office, University of Massachusetts, county sheriffs’ offices, and the state court system.
In the statement this week, Baker’s administration noted that it “publishes annual and quarterly reports, consistent with statutory requirements and prior administrations, documenting diversity in the state workforce and is pleased to have currently surpassed benchmarks for hiring women and minorities.”
But aggregated statistics do not allow watchdogs to authenticate claims and perform independent scrutiny.
“It is only through the analysis of [raw] data that we can determine whether we are achieving our stated goals related to diversity and inclusion,” Sullivan of the NAACP said. “There’s an accountability role here for journalists and community-based organizations like the NAACP to serve as a check and balance on government.”