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Greater Sunshine: Benton County Becoming More Transparent

By Mavuto Kalulu

Benton County ranks second in the state in terms of their web transparency. Only Washington County ranks higher. This is according to the 2019 report, “Access Arkansas – County Web Transparency” published by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) on December 20, 2019.

Benton County’s transparency score of 0.762 reflects that the county publishes about 76 percent of the public information that is graded in the ACRE transparency index which, among other things, includes things like budgets, audited financial information, Quorum Court agendas and minutes, requests for bids, bids and bid winners. 

Although it is natural to be excited about a higher rank than 73 other counties, residents might be even more excited about the improvement in the score itself. Benton County improved by 0.143 from 0.619 in 2018 because they started publishing, among other things, the current budget and audited financial statements. Greater transparency is associated with many benefits. A 2017 transparency research review titled “25 Years of Transparency Research” by Maria Cucciniello, Gregory Porumbescu, and Steven Grimmelikhuijsen and published in Public Administration Review reveals that the benefits of transparency include instilling fiscal discipline, reducing corruption, and improving the relationship between government and its citizens.  

With greater transparency, county residents can more easily see how their elected officials use their tax dollars. Knowledgeable residents are empowered residents. Scrutinizing public expenditure can lead to a more prudent allocation and use of public resources and more accountable officials.

Despite their improvement, there is other important information that was not published at the time data was collected for the index like some budgets from previous years, salaries of elected officials and bids and bid winners.  

Benton County is, however, committed to ensuring that residents have better access to important public information. This was evident from a meeting I had with the Communications Director, Channing Barker, the IT Director, James Turner, and the web administrator, Mathew Thomason on January 8, 2020. Benton County officials stressed three different points.  Firstly, that they are aware of the responsibility their residents entrust them with to manage these resources. Secondly, that as stewards it is prudent that residents know how they are allocating and using these resources. Hence the need to publish public information online. And thirdly, that such information should be presented in a user-friendly way so that residents do not have to struggle to access and understand public information.  

Benton County officials have already taken steps to ensure that residents have access to the rest of the 24 percent of the public information that was previously not available online. Just a few days ago, I visited their website and saw requests for bids and bid winners which they did not have online when we were assessing county websites in 2019. The website shows that as of January 14, 2020, Benton County has awarded four contracts to four different vendors. For example, a bid for road striping which was opened on January 1, 2020 and closed on January 14, 2020 was awarded to Time Striping.

Benton County officials are working hard to ensure greater transparency. Now it’s up to you to take a closer look and be sure to let them know what they are doing well and what they could be doing better. 

Mavuto Kalulu is a Policy Analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He is the author of the policy brief, “Let the Sun Shine In: Improving Access to Arkansas Counties’ Financial Information” and the lead author of “Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency” a report on the accessibility of fiscal, administrative, and political information in Arkansas.