The anniversary of the Arkansas transparency website is fast approaching. For those unfamiliar with the importance of transparency, the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 303 on April 4, 2011. The act required the state to create a publicly accessible website, known as Transparency Arkansas, to boost public awareness of state spending, revenue, employee salaries, contracts, debt levels, and local revenue disbursements.
Transparency Arkansas satisfies the basic requirements of Act 303, but there is room for improvement.
The use of websites to provide information to the public plays a crucial role in promoting government transparency, participation, and collaboration with residents. It also promotes equal and sustained public access to government information, discouraging corruption and enhancing public trust.
This opinion is echoed in the 2011 book "Advancing Excellence and Public Trust in Government." The authors explain that excellence in government cannot be achieved without public trust. Hence, best practices for increasing transparency like government websites and other open-data initiatives should be encouraged. The authors also suggest that improving transparency in governmental operations can assuage some doubts and hostility toward government.
A review of two transparency report cards by the Volcker Alliance and the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) point us to where we are in our transparency efforts as a state. The first report, the State Budget Report Card by the Volcker Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower public servants to govern responsibly, gave the Natural State a "D" for its overall transparency efforts, despite the existence of Transparency Arkansas. Arkansas ranked poorly because it is the only state that fails to present all budgetary materials on a single consolidated website, and due to its opaque disclosure of infrastructure replacement costs and tax expenditures.
The second report card is U.S. PIRG's Following the Money Report published in 2018. The Following the Money Report is an annual report that reviews the conversations of state leaders who are working to further transparency. The 2018 Report ranked and sorted state transparency websites into one of five tiers based on the quality, accessibility of transparency data, and overall user experience of their transparency websites.
Arkansas ranked in the second category of "Advancing States" with a "B-". Arkansas' transparency portal ranked above neighboring Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. These states received either a "D" or a "D-" in promoting Web fiscal transparency. Louisiana is the only neighbor whose fiscal transparency website ranked higher (A-) than Arkansas.
While Transparency Arkansas has many of the same features as those of "Leading States," the authors of the Following the Money Report emphasized that all states have room to improve. As of now, Transparency Arkansas only has raw data available for users to download. This imposes higher search costs on the public and legislators when utilizing the website. Arkansas could improve its Web portal by including interactive and customizable data visualization features. The cost of implementing these changes is minimal given the variety of options available to the public, such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau.
Another study by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of Americans surveyed felt that more government transparency would improve the quality of government services to residents. The authors of the Following the Money Report also echoed this thought by providing examples from Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Texas that transformed their transparency websites into actual cost savings, which benefited taxpayers.
Mississippi saved between $750 and $1,000 for every public information request fulfilled through its transparency website. Texas claims to have saved over $163 million by using its transparency website to arbitrage public contract pricing when appropriate and economically advantageous. Like Mississippi, South Carolina also saved tens of thousands of dollars as a result of their transparency website, which reduced costly public records requests.
Among the many benefits logged by the Follow the Money authors was that increased transparency efforts led to "more efficient government administration, more competitive bidding for public projects, and less staff time spent on information requests" such as FOIA. The authors noted that in 2017 alone, at least 1.5 million users viewed over 8.7 million pages on state transparency websites.
Transparency websites also allow legislators speedy, customized, and interactive access to state spending data. Given the competing demands on state and local legislators, transparency is paramount in having the correct information on which to base solid policy decisions.
These websites are not only a good resource for legislators, but they can also benefit the public by providing a window into the functioning of state government. Other state governments utilize websites to provide faster, more customer-oriented data accessibility and have been doing so for years. Arkansas should also strive to bring this level of service to its transparency efforts.
Joyce Ajayi and Joseph Johns are policy analysts at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.