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Open the books!

Let public see county fiscal data by Mavuto Kalulu Special to the Democrat-Gazette | November 19, 2018 at 2:38 a.m.

Imagine a test with a possible 100 points. Now imagine a big red 7 with a circle around it at the top of that test. This is how Arkansas scores on fiscal transparency at the county level.

On Sept. 10, the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) released a report titled "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency." The report provides a clear look at the status of county government Web transparency in Arkansas. It breaks down transparency into three different types, one of which is fiscal transparency. And Arkansans have a lot of work to do to bring that grade up.

How does the report define fiscal transparency, and why should county officials and Arkansans care about it?

Fiscal transparency is the disclosure of financial information such as budgets, audits and taxes. When county governments publish complete and reliable financial information online, citizens have greater opportunity to evaluate how their elected officials plan to spend their tax dollars and how well they manage and use public resources. A survey of transparency research titled "25 Years of Research: Evidence and Future Directions" published in the Journal of Public Administration shows that the benefits include instilling fiscal discipline and reducing corruption.

Publishing fiscal information online also reduces costs that arise when people request information through the Freedom of Information Act. The State Office of Education and the Tax Commission in Utah save about $15,000 a year by being proactive in publishing public information and reducing the number of requests.

How do Arkansas counties fare with regards to fiscal transparency?

Despite the benefits of fiscal transparency, ACRE's assessment revealed a serious deficiency. Forty-nine counties in Arkansas do not have any financial information online. The rest of the counties publish some financial information. For example, only eight counties in Arkansas publish current budgets online. Only nine counties publish previous years' budgets.

The fiscal transparency score is calculated on a 0 to 1 scale. The average score for all Arkansas counties is 0.072, an indication that Arkansas counties are not fiscally transparent. That's a 7 out of 100! The top 10 performing counties in fiscal transparency, in order, are Washington, Baxter, Pulaski, Faulkner, Carroll, Craighead, Van Buren, Benton, Garland and Sevier.

How then can county officials promote fiscal transparency at county level governments in Arkansas?

First, county officials need to choose a place where this information is easily accessible. Fiscal data such as budgets and audits are required by law so these documents already exist. Now they just need to be somewhere citizens can find them! Currently, not all counties in Arkansas have their own websites. Forty out of the 75 counties have stand-alone websites. Thirty-five counties have some presence on the Web platform, but only political transparency information like quorum court meeting places, times, agendas and minutes is published--not fiscal information. The platform may be a good option for counties that do not have the resources to own and maintain their own website.

Second, county officials need to populate their websites with this information. The ACRE report provides the fiscal information that would be helpful for constituents, such as current and archived budgets, current and archived financial statements, county fees, and taxes. These are selected based on what experts have said are the most important components of fiscal transparency.

Third, the Legislature can play a role as well. Counties are already required by state law to publish financial information once a year in a local newspaper or a newspaper with the most circulation. It should be updated to include a requirement to publish this information online as well. The number of people that are accessing information through the Web is growing and legislators should recognize that. A 2018 Pew Research Center article, "Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet," reports that the percentage of people accessing information online has grown from 52 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2018.

One concern about Web transparency is that rural areas may not have access to high-speed Internet. But Arkansas has made noticeable progress in this regard. According to a Federal Communications Commission 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, high-speed Internet capabilities in rural Arkansas increased to 58 percent in 2016, up from 16 percent in 2013.

This will require effort on the part of county officials, but it's worth it.

There is a real opportunity for today's leaders to be proactive in providing timely and relevant information to their constituents. I hope they take it and continue to earn their constituents' trust.


Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.

Editorial on 11/19/2018

Print Headline: Open the books!


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