Are Arkansas counties the worst in the nation when it comes to publishing public information online? Six years ago, the answer was yes, according to a nationwide assessment of government web transparency, conducted by the nonprofit Sunshine Review.
Thankfully, the Arkansas Legislature took a step toward ridding Arkansas of that label. Effective Jan. 1, 2020, Arkansas counties are required to publish their financial information online. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Spencer Hawks, who worked with the Association of Arkansas Counties to improve financial transparency.
It's exciting, in part, since it should rid Arkansas counties of the "worst in the nation" label. But most importantly, there are proven benefits that come with more transparency. In a 2017 transparency research review, "25 Years of Transparency Research" published in the Public Administration Review by Maria Cucciniello, Gregory Porumbescu and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, the researchers show that transparency encourages prudent use of resources.
Arkansas residents will more easily see how their county officials use their tax dollars. The more knowledgeable residents are, the more empowered they are to hold elected officials accountable. In addition, elected officials become more prudent when they know that residents are watching their resources. This can lead to less corruption and more fiscal discipline.
It also builds trust between government officials and residents.
According to a 2018 report, "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency" published by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE), at the time the law was passed, only eight of Arkansas' 75 counties published their budgets online. A 2019 follow-up assessment found that the Association of Arkansas Counties had already started publishing budgets for all counties in Arkansas. The assessment, however, concluded that budgets for only 18 counties were easily accessible to county residents. Even though the budgets are on the association's website, for easy access counties should direct their residents to the budgets by providing a direct link to the budgets.
A similar example is audited county financial statements, which reveal how prudently elected officials used the tax dollars. These statements are available at the Legislative Audit website, but for easy access for residents, counties should help residents find the results by providing a direct link on their websites to the audited financial statements.
If counties choose not to host financial information like budgets and audits on their own websites, they can still make sure that residents are aware of this online information and make it easy for them to access and understand it.
Residents also have an important role to play. We can take advantage of these new efforts and access to information. We can hold imprudent officials accountable, and give credit to those who are succeeding as good stewards.
Good governance requires government transparency. Act 564 is a clear step toward that. Thank you to the leaders that supported it and the officials that have embraced it.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He is the author of the policy brief, "Let the Sun Shine In: Improving Access to Arkansas Counties' Financial Information." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.
Editorial on 12/26/2019