The City of Conway has taken a step toward increasing local transparency with its launch of Open Checkbook. Open Checkbook is an online tool providing access to the city’s funding sources and expenditures data. Residents can easily go to the website and see how city officials are using their tax dollars. Residents of Conway should take pride that their city supports an open and transparent spending process. Congratulations to Mayor Castleberry and his team.
The City of Conway’s Open Checkbook is modeled after the State’s own Open Checkbook platform. Act 303 of 2011 created the state-level Open Checkbook, but did not require local governments to create similar websites. It is, therefore, encouraging to see the city of Conway voluntarily embracing transparency by launching their own Open Checkbook.
Being the first city in Arkansas to launch the Open Checkbook certainly gives Conway something to brag about. The main reason for launching the website, however, was due to elected officials realizing the potential benefits that accompany open and honest spending reports. Promoting transparency and accountability has several benefits. It promotes trust, instils fiscal disciplines, and decreases corruption.
First, transparency promotes trust between governments and citizens. A 2002 study by James Alt and colleagues published in State Politics and Policy Quarterly shows that voters entrust greater resources to more fiscally transparent institutions than less transparent ones. By publishing financial information, elected officials signal to the citizenry that they have nothing to conceal and are open to assessment by their constituents, promoting trust. The absence of this information can have the opposite effect. Voluntary transparency like what is shown through the City of Conway’s Open Checkbook is a way to increase both trust and accountability between elected officials and their constituents .
Second, transparency instills fiscal discipline and promotes efficient use of tax dollars. A 2005 International Monetary Fund paper by Farhan Hameed shows that countries that are more fiscally transparent have higher fiscal balances. The United States Public Interest Research Group has documented the savings made by states through the introduction of financial transparency websites. For example, it is estimated that Mississippi is able to save between $750 and $1,000 in staff time for every information request that is fulfilled by its Open Checkbook website. Furthermore, the comptroller’s office in Texas has been able to save an estimated $4.8 million by using the state’s transparency website to identify activities that could be consolidated to save tax dollars. The city of Conway could potentially use their Open Checkbook records to look for ways to save the city money in the long term.
Third, transparency makes governments less corrupt. A 2015 study by Francisco Bastida and colleagues published in the International Review of Administrative Sciences shows that fiscal transparency is a key ingredient in reducing corruption. Open Checkbook makes it possible for individuals to spot mismanagement and corruption. In addition, when elected officials are aware that financial activities can be easily scrutinized by other stakeholders such as citizens, they are deterred from engaging in corruption.
The effectiveness of the Open Checkbook depends on citizens being willing and able to utilize the tool. Just having information on the website will only go so far. For example, a 2010 study by Catharina Lindstedt and Daniel Naurin published in the International Political Science Review shows that transparency is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient in reducing corruption. To be effective, citizens must be able to hold the elected officials accountable. Publishing financial information enables individuals, however few they may be, to examine the expenditures and detect discrepancies. In Arkansas it is not uncommon to see elected officials embroiled in corruption scandals. Thus, there is a need for citizens to play a role. By familiarizing themselves with the Open Checkbook, citizens are telling their elected officials that they care about how their tax dollars are being used. The elected officials have played their part to make information available and citizens must ensure that the tax dollars are being spent as budgeted. It only takes a few individuals who are committed to identify the discrepancies if they exist in the expenditure data. In South Dakota, a reporter used their transparency website to launch an investigation into subsidies that led to the state saving about $19 million by eliminating redundancies.
Congratulations to the City of Conway for leading the way to a more transparent state! We hope that other cities will follow Conway’s good example.
Dr. Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas. Terra Aquia is a research assistant at ACRE. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.