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Washington County Makes Transparency a Priority

By Mavuto Kalulu and Terra Aquia

Congratulations to Washington County government officials for the good work on publishing public information on their website.

According to the transparency index created by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE), not only did Washington County obtain the highest overall score, it led in each of the three types of transparency: fiscal, political, and administrative. With an overall score of 0.84 out of a maximum of 1, Washington is head and shoulders above the next county, Pulaski, which has an overall score of 0.62.

It is important to note that our overall assessment of all 75 Arkansas counties has revealed a deficiency in information being published online. This lends support to a report by the Sunshine Review published in 2013, which gave Arkansas counties an F, the worst in the nation. Only 3 other counties have a score greater than 0.50 namely, Pulaski, Benton, and Garland.

It takes a lot of commitment from officials to ensure that public information is easily accessible to their constituents but it is worthwhile to do so. Research published in the Journal of Public Administration shows that transparency fosters greater trust between voters and their elected governments. Other benefits include improved economic performance, improved fiscal discipline and reduction of corruption.

One area that separates Washington County from the rest is  the publishing of bids and bid winners. It is the only county that publishes bids and bid winners online. Being transparent about winning bids and losing reduces the opportunity for corruptly awarding contracts. In addition, Washington County  is also one of only five counties that publish their current and previous three years’ of budgets online. It is also one of only two counties that publish audited financial statements online. Publishing financial information allows citizens to assess how well the elected officials are using their tax dollars.

Other counties can emulate Washington County and ensure that constituents are provided with easy access to information which enables them to hold their elected officials accountable. One way Washington County can motivate other counties to do better is through what is known as policy innovation diffusion. Research published in the American Journal of Political Science shows that there is a tendency of individuals and organizations to conform to the behaviors of their peers. This is why ACRE created the transparency index. Our desire is that counties that are lagging behind will improve on their transparency. The index provides counties with a tool to evaluate how they compare with their peers.

Possible impediments to online transparency include limited financial resources and staffing constraints. We recommend that counties explore how best they can utilize the Arkansas.gov platform to provide information to their constituents. Currently only 40 counties have stand-alone websites. The rest of the counties have some web presence on the Arkansas.gov platform. One advantage of utilizing the Arkansas.gov platform is that it offers an opportunity to have a uniform template to publish county information allowing for easier comparison.

Improving transparency allows greater citizen participation which leads to better policy outcomes. Citizens acting as additional watchdogs help deter elected government officials from engaging in corrupt activities.

Online transparency also encourages better use of tax dollars. For example, Massachusetts’ procurement was able to save the state $3 million by eliminating postage and printing costs associated with information requests by publishing information online. Dollars saved from prudent use of resources can be used to improve education by hiring more teachers. Alternatively, this can also help reduce the tax burden on constituents through lowering of taxes.

Improving transparency is not rocket science. Washington County is Arkansas’s shining light. Other counties should emulate Washington County and aspire to do even better. Let’s make the Natural State a transparent state. Start with the publishing of public information online.

Mavuto Kalulu is a Policy Analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Terra Aquia is Program Coordinator at ACRE.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.