Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Arkansas has one of the country's strongest Freedom of Information laws. It gives all Arkansans the right to access to public records and meetings. Our city boards and commissions can't meet in secret. The police must create a public record when someone is arrested. Records generated by agencies supported in full or in part by tax dollars can be inspected. The information — from reports of deaths of children from abuse to how much the city is spending on street paving to the health concerns of elephants at the zoo — is publicly owned.
Without the law, crucial business of the state would be held in private and dozens of unethical or corrupt public officials would suck from the public teat (hey there, Mark Darr).
But the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has its hurdles. It requires government agencies to turn over records right away when requested, unless the records are in "active" use or in storage, in which case the agency has three days. But there are exemptions, which officials occasionally interpret broadly. The only way to force compliance when that happens is by filing a lawsuit, which many ordinary citizens (and weekly newspapers) can't afford. Even when the system works as the law intends, making sense of public documents — typically delivered as photocopies or non-searchable electronic files — can be incredibly laborious. It's no coincidence that journalists and legal experts, with time and expertise on their side, are responsible for the most prominent examples of exposing government impropriety through FOIA.
The way the FOIA works is reactive. Arkansans can't access a public record without asking the custodian of the record for it. That was a sensible system in 1967, when Arkansas's FOIA law was passed and when most requests were fulfilled by pulling documents from file cabinets. But we live in wholly different era today, where most government actions or interactions — from a 311 call to fix a pothole to a campaign-finance disclosure — are (or should be) stored digitally in a database. That puts us in position to move from a reactive system to a proactive one.
"The intent of the Arkansas FOIA is to provide access to information in an open and public government, one of the hallmarks of a democratic society," Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has written. State leaders should honor that intent and adjust policies to reflect today's technological landscape, where cheap data storage and vast computational power make providing open access to government data not just possible, but practical.
The state of Arkansas and our biggest municipalities should build on the state's FOIA law and adopt comprehensive open data policies. All public records, save those that would violate privacy laws or undermine security, should be proactively made available to the public for free on the Internet in a structured, sortable, downloadable format.
The move wouldn't only be a boon to transparency and government accountability. It would improve governmental efficiency, lead to better public services and provide a potentially enormous economic stimulus. There's treasure locked away in government that belongs to the public. It's time to free it.
Arkansas isn't entirely devoid of transparency initiatives. Last year, Transparency.Arkansas.gov went live, thanks to Act 303 of the 2011 General Assembly. The website details state expenditures, revenues and bonded indebtedness. All told, it included $1.9 billion in state contract spending and $7 billion in other spending during the 2013 fiscal year. The information is searchable, downloadable and machine-readable (i.e. a computer program can search and sort the data).
The legislature earned an "A" from the Sunlight Foundation, the leading advocacy group for open data and transparency, in its Open Legislative Data Report Card, for posting online information on bills, committees, legislators and votes in a timely manner and keeping the information from past sessions archived online.
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