How easy is it to see where the covid relief funds went? Can a concerned taxpayer track the relief money to see if it really went to the intended vendor for the stated purpose?
Good governance means citizens know how these dollars were spent. Elected officials are entrusted with managing public resources on behalf of residents. Transparency promotes trust. Prudent officials are transparent.
As an example, let us track funds that were allocated to school districts in Arkansas under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program. Do Arkansas parents know how much their school districts received and how the money was spent? Luckily, the Arkansas Department of Education publishes the total amount that was allocated to the school districts in Arkansas.
According to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief transparency dashboard, the ADE has allocated $1.76 billion to school districts in Arkansas. That is almost an average of $3,700 per pupil based on the 2020-2021 K-12 total enrollment. These dollars were funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in May 2020, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in January 2021, and the American Rescue Plan in March 2021.
It is great that the ADE's ESSER transparency dashboard provides the total expenses for each school district. Beyond allocations to school districts, however, it is hard to track funds.
If a taxpayer wants to know how the funds were actually spent, he or she needs a breakdown of expenses by the final recipient. Are the school districts doing that? Are they posting that information on their websites?
The ADE has done its part to provide the total expenses. School districts need to transparently show how funds were spent. Only with detailed information can we do a critical assessment. Were these funds spent responsibly, and was the aid effective in achieving its goal?
School districts are just one level of government receiving covid relief funds. Other state agencies should emulate the ADE. Other agencies should be even more transparent on covid relief-funds allocation and use. One alternative some states are using to ensure transparency in the use of these covid-19 funds is to utilize their already existing transparency infrastructure.
All 50 U.S. states have a transparency website where they post their expenditure data by agency and vendor. Missouri uses its transparency website, Missouri Accountability Portal, to report detailed covid-19 expenditures. Arkansas can do the same and provide the covid-19 expenditures on its Transparency.Arkansas.gov website.
Why should Arkansans care that the spending of these funds is transparent, one may ask? Trust is a key issue, but there are other benefits of transparency.
Transparency promotes fiscal discipline and efficient use of public resources. According to a 2018 report, "Following the Money 2018" by scholars Rachel J. Cross, Michelle Surka, and Scott Welder, states that have transparency websites report being able to use price information from different vendors to negotiate better contracts. The price information also promotes competition among vendors leading to lower prices for goods and services.
In addition, publishing expenditure information online reduces costly Freedom of Information Act requests. For example, Mississippi reported saving between $750 and $1,000 in staff time for every information request fulfilled by its transparency website rather than by a state employee.
Also important, my own research, "E-Transparency and Economic Performance: Evidence from Arkansas" published in the Midwestern Business and Economic Review, shows a strong link between e-transparency and economic performance.
Arkansans deserve to know how covid-19 funds are being used. State and other local governments need to take a proactive role in ensuring residents have easy access to this expenditure data. There is no excuse not to do it. Technology to allow residents to follow the dollars to the vendor exists, and it is prudent to utilize it and promote accountability and trust.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and co-author of "Access Arkansas: County Web Transparency." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.