How transparent is your county government?
In Arkansas, it depends on where you live. Since the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) started tracking county online transparency in 2018, most counties have made improvements, some very significant. But large differences still remain, and some counties still have work to do.
For the third year in a row, ACRE scored Washington County as the most transparent county in Arkansas in 2020. However, they shared this honor with Benton County. These two counties publish online about 95 percent of the important information that ACRE includes in its county transparency index.
It is good that we are seeing that some counties are increasing transparency. A transparent government is one that is more likely to be disciplined about how they spend their residents' money.
One can argue that these counties are more transparent because they have more resources compared to other counties in Arkansas. But financial ability alone is not sufficient to improve transparency. It takes elected officials willing to proactively publish public information online.
When ACRE started tracking public information counties published online, Benton County was publishing about 60 percent of the information included in the ACRE transparency index. It was one of only four counties that were publishing at least 50 percent of the public information included in the index. Benton County's leadership engaged with ACRE to ensure that it would become more transparent.
There are other notable observations that attest that Arkansas counties are headed in the right direction. In 2019, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law to require that counties publish financial information such as budgets online. Our initial assessment of Arkansas counties' websites conducted in 2018 showed that only eight counties published their most current budgets, and six counties published budgets from three years prior. Fast-forward to 2020: County budgets can be accessed on county websites or on third-party platforms. You can now find all the county budgets at ARTransparency.org.
On average, Arkansas counties now publish about 31 percent of this important public information compared to 15 percent when ACRE started tracking public information on county websites in 2018. The number of counties that publish at least 50 percent of the public information has also increased from four in 2018 to 16 counties in 2020.
Despite these improvements, there is still more that needs to be done to improve county transparency for all Arkansans. Thirty-five counties in Arkansas still do not have their own websites. While some of the information for these counties can be found on other platforms such as the Arkansas.gov county Web portals, the information posted there is minimal. According to the just-released ACRE report "Access Arkansas: County Web Transparency," 20 counties in Arkansas publish less than 10 percent of the public information included in the index.
Why should all Arkansas care that public information is easily accessible? Partly because we do not want Arkansas to be the least-Web-transparent state in the nation. A 2013 report by Sunshine Review assesses Arkansas counties as the worst in the nation.
Most importantly, academic research points to several benefits of transparency. A 2017 Public Administration Review research article by Maria Cucciniello, Gregory Porumbescu, and Stephen Grimmelikhuijsen, "25 Years of Transparency Research," shows that transparency is key to promoting accountability and improves fiscal discipline. A 2018 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group states that state agencies use the state's transparency portal to monitor travel spending and ensure that employees are making prudent decisions.
Providing easy access to public information by publishing it online will allow residents to scrutinize the decisions and decision outcomes of their elected officials. The more eyes scrutinizing their decisions, the more prudently elected officials allocate resources.
What should be done to improve county Web transparency in Arkansas? The first step is to ensure that all counties in Arkansas have a platform to publish their public information. One method is for counties to create their own website. Alternatively, the Association of Arkansas Counties can expand its Web platform to allow poorer counties to publish more information on its website.
Another alternative is for counties to work with Information Network of Arkansas (INA) to publish more public information on the already existing county Web pages at the Arkansas.gov platform. The INA is the state's designated provider of digital services for government processes and information.
Transparency has so many benefits. The ACRE county Web transparency index shines light on where counties stand currently. It also shows where they can go and how to get there. Let's work together to ensure that all Arkansans have access to public information. It is good governance to do so.
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," an annual report on the accessibility of fiscal, administrative, and political information in Arkansas counties. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.