The Arkansas Attorney General's website states that "the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the most comprehensive and strongest open-records and open-meetings laws in the country." Let's keep it that way. On April 11, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the Arkansas FOIA Task Force voted to have fewer exemptions and no time extensions on FOIA reporting requirements. It is now up to the Arkansas Legislature to ensure that public information is easily accessible.
Why are strong freedom of information laws important? A 2014 study by Adriana Cordis and Patrick Warren published in the Journal of Public Economics shows that strong FOIA laws are a key component in the reduction of corruption. Initially, FOIA laws cause the number of corruption convictions of federal officials to increase. As time passes, that number declines--a strong indication that FOIA is a useful tool for investigative reporters and individuals to detect corruption. FOIA also deters future public officials from engaging in corrupt practices.
FOIA compliance can be costly for governments in some instances, but providing information to citizens is a duty of elected officials. A rational FOIA policy considers both costs and benefits.
Instead of being reactive by responding to individual FOIA requests as they occur, public officials can be proactive in the provision of information to their citizens. Proactively providing information reduces the number of requests and, therefore, the costs associated with fulfilling those requests. In Utah, for example, a 2013 report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund states that the state Office of Education and the Utah Tax Commission save about $15,000 a year by being proactive in publishing public information.
Governmental meeting schedules and budget reports shouldn't require a FOIA request. That information should be readily available online. The Arkansas Center for Research in Economics has conducted an assessment of Arkansas counties' websites to examine how proactive they are in publishing public information. The results are lackluster. Our assessment shows that only 40 of Arkansas' 75 counties have stand-alone websites, and the quality of information published on those sites varies widely.
Studies like one from the Pew Research Center show that the use of Internet in the U.S. has grown from 52 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2018. With this growth in Web access and usage, it becomes basic good governance to provide relevant information to the citizens through this medium.
Proactively publishing agendas and minutes online eliminates the pressure of having to gather that information for FOIA requests later. Yet Arkansas' counties fall short in this regard as well. According to a Transparency Report released on Sept. 10 by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics, 18 counties publish their quorum court meeting time and location, 12 publish meeting agendas, 11 publish meeting minutes, and only four have archived videos of the deliberations available to watch online. The platform already exists; it just needs the content.
Some county officials may be concerned that they do not have enough resources to create and maintain a website, but 35 Arkansas counties already have some Web presence on the Arkansas.gov platform. Expanding the use of this platform could provide an alternative means of publishing information that citizens need.
Government should be a proactive provider of public information by publishing more records online. Let's make Arkansas a more transparent state by making use of all the possible avenues.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Terra Aquia is program coordinator at ACRE. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.
Editorial on 09/29/2018