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OPINION | MAVUTO KALULU: Take it online

Embrace tech, enhance transparency by MAVUTO KALULU SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

There are few positive outcomes from 2020.

By the end of 2020, more than 340,000 lives were lost nationwide due to the covid-19 pandemic, among them more than 3,600 Arkansans. Fear of spreading or catching the virus as well as lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread resulted in many businesses closing. Many people have lost jobs and savings.

As individuals in business, education, and government experiment to make their spaces and processes safer, we've seen a surge in the use of technology. Many organizations, including state and local governments, began conducting more business online. For example, in June 2020, North Little Rock School District Board hosted a series of Zoom meetings to seek input from the community in its search for a new superintendent.

There are advantages to more government business being conducted online. Take quorum court meetings, for example. Such meetings are meant to be open to allow for greater resident participation. But how open have these meetings really been? Arkansas' open public meetings law requires counties to provide the time and place of each regular meeting to anyone who requests the information. For emergency or special meetings, the law requires counties to notify representatives of the newspapers, radio stations, and television stations at least two hours before the meetings take place. The rationale is to ensure some residents are represented at these meetings. Does this suffice to ensure greater resident participation?

Expanding the channels of information increases opportunities for participation. A forthcoming report, "Access Arkansas: County Web Transparency 2021," shows that in 2020, only 39 of Arkansas' 75 counties were publishing their quorum court meeting times and places online. Ideally, the quorum courts' meeting agendas, minutes, and videos would be published online. However, the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) report reveals that only 24 counties publish meeting agendas online, 21 publish meeting minutes online, and nine publish archived videos online of the deliberations from quorum court meetings.

The surge in the use of Internet technologies offers counties an opportunity to increase the chances of residents' participation. Livestreaming meetings, recording them, and archiving them allows residents access to deliberations.

What about residents of rural counties, such as Monroe, Calhoun and Arkansas, which according to BroadbandNow have the least broadband coverage of 1.70 percent, 7.70 percent, and 10 percent respectively?

While residents of these rural counties are disadvantaged at the moment, the future looks bright for them too. In August 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson established Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC), a grant program aimed at providing high-speed broadband to residents in rural communities by 2022. This program, if successful, should allow residents in these rural communities easier access to streamed quorum court meetings. Information from the Arkansas State Broadband Office website shows that, to date, the ARC program has made 60 awards totaling close to $87 million.

Currently, residents of rural counties such as Monroe, Calhoun and Arkansas have less access to online public information. According to our forthcoming report, these counties and 32 others do not have stand-alone websites. However, they each have an Arkansas.gov Web page where very little public information is published.

In the absence of owning their own websites, we encourage counties to work with the Information Network of Arkansas (INA) on how they can utilize these pages to publish more public information. INA is a public-private partnership between the state and the National Information Consortium, the largest provider of digital government services. According to Arkansas Code § 25-27-104 (2019), one of the duties of INA is "to develop and implement an electronic gateway system to provide electronic access to members of the public to public information ...". To initiate a discussion about digital government goals, INA provides a contact form on its website.

Another option for these disadvantaged counties is to publish public information on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Increasing transparency won't cure all our problems, but it has many benefits.

A 2017 Public Administration Review research article, "25 Years of Transparency Research: Evidence and Future Directions," by Maria Cucciniello, Gregory Porumbescu, and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, reveals that besides increasing participation, transparency improves financial management and reduces corruption.

Arkansans need more transparency via Internet technologies, and our own computer screens can be even better windows through which to watch our legislators and officials.

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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.

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