Expanding Government Transparency in Arkansas: Why House Bill 1399 Matters

By Dr. Joyce O. Ajayi, ACRE Policy Analyst

 The Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) has been tracking county government web transparency since 2018 with our publication Access Arkansas: County Web Transparency. Since we first published our report, Arkansas counties have become much more transparent, both through their own individual choices to publish more information online and through actions of the legislature requiring counties to publish certain information. A bill proposed in the current session, HB 1399, would further expand web transparency by requiring counties and cities to publish even more information online rather than in newspapers, which is the only current requirement.

This bill may have some deficiencies in that it strikes out the option of local newspaper publishing in its entirety in certain portions of the bill related specifically to county elections and tax delinquency lists. Those sections of the bill could be improved by retaining the option of publishing in a newspaper, in addition to allowing online publishing of such notices on a website as an alternative.

However, two portions of the bill that speak specifically to ACRE’s work with local governments are the provisions in sections 18 and 20 of the bill concerning publishing or posting requirements of municipality bylaws, ordinances, and annual financial statements. The proposed sections of the bill allow municipalities to publish this information in a newspaper or on a website.

Currently, only 34 of Arkansas’s 112 first-class cities publish their budgets online. If the proposed bill is passed, this change would improve the average score for a city in our forthcoming index by 0.8 points on a 0 to1 scale. That improvement would be similar to the changes that counties experienced in their index scores, as discussed further below in this blog.

In today’s digital age, it is easier than ever for local governments to make information available online, costing governments fewer resources. For example, open-source content management systems like WordPress can be used to create a professional-looking website without the need for expensive web development services. Using websites to provide information to the public enhances government transparency. Web transparency also plays a crucial role in promoting equal, accessible, and sustained public access to government information.

Best practice research reveals that open-data initiatives, such as publishing government information and notices on government websites and other web platforms, are crucial for increasing transparency in government. Several best-practice research publications support this position on web transparency. Amedee, George, et al. echo this opinion in their book Advancing Excellence and Public Trust in Government, published by Lexington Books in 2011.

Also, in the “Following the Money Report” (2018), an annual report that summarizes the conversations between democracy leaders who are working to further transparency published, authors Rachel J. Cross, Michelle Surka, and Scott Welder emphasized the importance of web transparency and publishing government information like that which is the subject of this bill on government websites. The authors of “Following the Money” explain, among other things, that web transparency leads to more efficient government administration and cost savings for the government. The authors give examples from state websites in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas that transformed their transparency websites into actual cost savings, a benefit for taxpayers.

The authors of “Following the Money” also note that people are getting more engaged with information online these days. For example, they reported that in 2017 alone, at least 1.5 million users viewed over 8.7 million pages on state transparency websites.

Over the years, we at ACRE have conducted original academic research on local government transparency for the state, and the data shows that local governments have a long way to go in improving transparency. Some of the history of ACRE’S work on government transparency dates back to 2013 when an assessment of online transparency by Kristin McMurray, “2013 Transparency Report Card: Bringing State & Local Governments to Light,” published by the Sunshine Review, revealed that Arkansas’s local governments were not doing so well at transparency. For example, Arkansas counties were the worst in the nation at web transparency earning an F grade. No other state’s counties earned such a low grade; cities earned a C grade, while the school districts earned a C-. Against that backdrop, ACRE kick-started a collaborative research effort with local governments to improve their web transparency. That effort led to the publication of the Access Arkansas: Web Transparency Report. ACRE has released three editions of the report. This year’s edition is the 4th and is set to be released in March of 2023. This edition of the report will show that progress has been made in county-level transparency in Arkansas since 2018 when we published the first edition of the Transparency Report. However, there is still much room for improvement, as Table 1 shows.

From Table 1, you will observe that Arkansas counties, overall, performed better in fiscal transparency in 2022 than in the other two types of transparency. A contributing factor to this was that in 2019, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 564, requiring that beginning in January 2020, counties must publish their financial information on web platforms. The website artransparency.gov was established to assist counties with complying with the law, even if they do not have their own website. As a result, fiscal transparency to full compliance on this aspect of transparency, as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Online Publication of County Budgets Before Act 564 in 2019 and after Act 564 in 2022


Since Act 564 was passed into law, fiscal transparency has significantly improved in Arkansas. Table 2 (below) provides both the number and percentages of counties that publish each of the index’s fiscal subcomponents in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2022.  The table demonstrates both the improvement that Arkansas counties have made as a whole and where the deficiencies still exist in publishing certain types of financial information.

 Table 2

Number and Percentages of Arkansas Counties Publishing Each Subcomponent of Fiscal Transparency Online


Two things especially stand out in Table 2:

  • In 2022, the number of counties publishing budgets and audits online was 75, meaning all counties now publish the information online via artransparency.gov as a result of Act 564 (Although in the final calculations of each county’s final fiscal score, we award a full point to those counties that either publish the information directly on their website or direct users to the information via a link to the artransparency.gov website).
  • Most counties now publish each subcomponent of fiscal transparency online. The number of counties publishing each subcomponent of fiscal transparency online has increased in every category except for county fees.

Cities, unfortunately, do not have a similar mandate to Act 564. Figure 2 is the bar chart showing the current data for fiscal transparency of Arkansas cities of first class. The blue bars signify the number of cities that currently publish their budgets online, and the orange bars signify what the data should look like if this portion of the proposed HB1399 should pass. Currently, only 34 out of 112 cities publish their current budgets online.

Figure 2

Fiscal Transparency of Cities of First Class: Online Budget Publication

The implication of having this kind of web transparency is that it provides residents with equal and sustained access to government information. Some may argue against web transparency by asserting that in Arkansas poor internet connection in rural areas may undermine the effectiveness of the proposed law. However, many residents are currently being left behind regarding the reach of local newspapers. People are not reading newspapers like they have in the past, and current law without amendment limits government transparency because it restricts the information to being placed in local newspapers alone.

A cursory view of the 2022 newspaper circulation data of Arkansas’s newspaper of record, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ADG), reveals an average daily distribution of 27,321 copies and 66,788 Sunday copies (as published in the ADG’s classifieds [Sunday 9/25/2022] required by the US Postal Service). According to the last census data, there are about 1,993,031 people over the age of 18 in the state. When we compare this number of the daily distribution of newspapers to the number of people over the age of 18 in the state, one way or the other, a part of the population is being missed or not being served with information. Hence the need to amend the current law on publication requirements for municipalities.

In addition, as of year-end 2018, 59.1% of Arkansas’s rural population had access to fixed terrestrial 25 Mbps/3 Mbps internet, up from 16.0% in 2013. This number is expected to go up from 2022 with the “Arkansas State Broadband Plan” launched by Governor Asa Hutchinson in May 2019, and the establishment of the Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) grant program aimed at providing high-speed broadband to residents in rural communities. Most parts of rural Arkansas are expected to have access to internet service with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps from 2022.

Using websites to distribute information to the public is a powerful tool for boosting government transparency. In particular, the transparency of the web is vital for advancing equal and sustained public access to government information, ensuring that this information is easily accessible to everyone.