It was a year ago that I first heard of the State Accountability Project.

The 50-state effort to produce an account of how transparent and accountable state governments really are seemed to align with Civil Beat’s goals.

In Civil Beat’s first year, we had already encountered numerous problems in Hawaii gaining access to public information and witnessed many cases involving public officials that raised ethical questions.

Right from the start, we at Civil Beat have been committed to placing Hawaii issues into a national context, to comparing how we do things here with how they’re handled in other states. We think this insight gives citizens a measure of the performance of their own government and opens the door to solutions we may not have tested.

By August, we had joined journalists from 49 other states in working with the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International on what turned out to be a massive and very challenging reporting effort. The project is funded in part by the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm founded by Civil Beat Publisher and CEO Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

Journalist Diane Lee joined Civil Beat to work specifically on the project with Assistant Editor Sara Lin and me. Diane, a Honolulu native, had a strong background in public affairs, with a masters in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. We examined about 330 indicators assigned to us by the Center for Public Integrity.

Unlike previous government rankings, the State Integrity Investigation does not rely on a simple tally of scandals. Rather, it measures the strength of laws and practices that encourage openness and deter corruption. The State Integrity Index measures the risk of corruption.

Reporters in each state researched 330 “Corruption Risk Indicators” across 14 categories of government: access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting, civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management, ethics enforcement, insurance commissions, and redistricting.

Our work was overseen and edited by the staff of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization. They made sure it was consistent with what others were doing across the country and that it met the standards of the project. We often had to go back and dig deeper or answer questions for the national experts.

We couldn’t have done this work without the help of many in government, and outside government. There are too many to name to thank. But we appreciate all the effort others made to help us make this report possible.

That said, we also learned how even for those in government many of these questions about how things work or are supposed to work are not easy to answer.

Often when we called people, it was difficult to get answers even to simple questions. Inquiries about how ethics and financial disclosure statutes applied to specific offices were often met by confusion. Factual questions about whether department officials were required to file financial disclosures and whether those filings were publicly available couldn’t be immediately answered. In some cases, departments declined to answer questions and instead referred reporters to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

We hope this work provides a basis for discussion of transparency and accountability in Hawaii. Our research is available for use by any news organization, or government entity, in Hawaii. You can find out more here.

As you’ll see from our stories today, Hawaii actually appears to do fairly well when it comes to our laws in this area.

The problem in Hawaii comes down to application of those laws. When the enforcement gap is considered, Hawaii ranks near the bottom of all states.

Overall, the picture of state governments revealed by this reporting effort is discouraging. The project found that state governments are largely doing a poor job delivering transparency and accountability to their citizenry. Meanwhile, statehouses remain ripe for corruption and self-dealing.

The State Integrity Investigation, a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states, has been a monumental task.

Civil Beat is proud to have played a small role in the effort.

Here are the stories:

To learn more, visit StateIntegrity.org

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