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Editor’s Note: There’s a feeling in Hawaii that people here don’t like to rock the boat, to speak up or publicly raise concerns about important issues and possible wrongdoing. But public debate and discussion are vital if we are going to make Hawaii a better place for residents and businesses. This series spotlights people (and organizations) in Hawaii who aren’t afraid to make waves.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stood in the courtyard of the University of Hawaii’s law school building, fielding questions after giving a talk to students.
But not every eye was on the honored guest.
“That’s Danielle,” a lady murmured to the guy sitting next to her.
They looked up as a confident professor leaned slightly over the railing on the second floor, smiling in the afternoon drizzle.
What question would Danielle Conway ask?
Scalia’s status did not intimidate the procurement law expert. She doesn’t play softball like the others who were lobbing some pitches to the justice.
This was a rare opportunity to ask a substantive question of someone who commands awesome power over the lives of millions of people through his legal opinions on cases ranging from abortion to gay rights.
Conway has been working with indigenous communities on valuing tradition and culture and believes the legal language is being stretched when it comes to “original invention.” She wanted his thoughts. But Scalia shot down her premise and sidestepped her real issue.
Conway has been seizing moments like this, big and small, for decades now. She considers it an obligation, a moral responsibility even. It’s who she was raised to be.
Her mother, by Conway’s account, was a rebellious, salt-of-the-earth type who went on to become a municipal court judge after raising four kids. She was one part of a trifecta that shaped who Conway is today.
“She really showed me perseverance, she showed me integrity and really gave me all the qualities I needed to succeed,” Conway told Civil Beat in an interview at her office.
Conway also draws on her military service and her law school education at a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, she graduated cum laude from Howard University in 1992. She said those experiences and obligations, along with her upbringing, taught her she has something worthwhile to offer the world.
“I see myself as that kind of asset to this law school and ultimately to this community,” she said.
It was her desire to take advantage of opportunities in life that her mother didn’t have that ultimately led her to Hawaii. She saw the job opening at UH and went after it.
That was 14 years ago. She’s become one of the foremost experts in procurement law in Hawaii.
Sitting at her functionally chaotic desk, framed by two vases overflowing with calla lilies behind her, the professor explained why procurement is so much more than a set of rules.
Simply put, procurement is at the heart of how a government does business. It’s a complex web of rules and procedures to make sure the public is getting services for a good value while treating vendors fairly.
“I’ve seen injustice,” Conway said. “I’ve seen businesses fail because decision-makers weren’t acting properly. I’ve seen immigrants with strong business models fail because they did not have the opportunity of fair competition.”
She looks at public procurement as a way to respond to those failures.
“It’s not just rules,” she said. “It’s the ultimate form of integrity. To represent citizens, to represent their interests, to represent contractors who also have integrity and to make it possible for people to succeed.
“It’s how we cultivate success in our community.”
Implementing her ideas to reform the beleaguered public procurement system in Hawaii has proven challenging.
She sharply criticized Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s administration for letting politics trump common sense when it came to the timeline for rolling out the Hawaii Health Connector website. She also underscored the importance of strong oversight in the implementation of a contract, as opposed to just focusing on the solicitation phase and then dropping the ball.
But a new door may have opened last year with Abercrombie’s appointment of Sarah Allen to head the State Procurement Office.
Allen met with Conway soon after taking the job and shares her vision for procurement in Hawaii.
“She has some really innovative ideas in how we can streamline and improve procurement,” Allen said. “I’m looking forward to a really long-term relationship with her in how we can improve procurement for the state.”
Allen replaced longtime administrator Aaron Fujioka, who unexpectedly quit in October right after signing orders to freeze the state’s ability to secure goods, services and construction contracts. It was an ugly exit.
Conway wants more people — both the general public and state employees — to stop thinking about procurement as a rote career. It’s a cultural shift Allen has embarked on in her office.
“When you get entrusted with someone’s dollars — the manifestation of their livelihood — you have a great responsibility,” Conway said.
Even with an ally in the state procurement office, it’s not going to be easy for Conway to effect the kind of change she believes is necessary.
Hawaii’s shortcoming is in failing to ensure the competency of the contracting professionals and their inability to ensure accountability in contract performance, Conway wrote in a Nov. 20 column for Civil Beat.
But speaking out in Hawaii is hard. Conway sees herself up against a culture where criticism is hardly welcomed and the good old boy system still reigns.
“There is a very pervasive catch-what-you-kill mentality in Hawaii. You could even call it an ingrained status quo,” she said.
But that hasn’t stopped her from speaking out, sometimes to her detriment.
“If you have wealth, if you have security, if you have an intellectual power, that brings responsibility — and that’s the responsibility to stand up,” she said. “I stand up for what I believe and I say what I believe. Because if you don’t do that, how are you then going to show people who do have something to lose that they should do the same?”
Conway has been particularly critical of the State Procurement Office. She sees the extra money that is often spent modifying contracts due to insufficient planning on the front end as dollars taken out of a pot for other public services.
“I am gravely concerned about how we waste money on poor public procurement procedures and that then takes away from where we could be investing that money in public education,” she said.
As a mother, Conway fears her son’s future may be dependent on what private school he can get into because of the lackluster performance of many public schools in Hawaii.
“I want my son to be able to navigate the world and you can only do that with a solid education,” she said. “We should not have to hang our hopes on private education to offer that.”
Conway blames leaders who are content just doing things the way they’ve always been done.
“We really need policy-makers, decision-makers to think in a visionary way, to take risks — reasonable and measurable risks — but to take risks,” she said.
“As a citizen, I’d much rather see my taxpayer dollars be lost on a risk than to be lost because of mismanagement or to be lost because someone was just doing something the same old way.”
Conway has spent much of her career using her background in procurement and intellectual property law to try to bolster minority groups and indigenous communities.
Avi Soifer, dean of the UH law school, said Conway is making significant contributions behind the scenes. He described her as an “opportunity guarantor.”
“People don’t realize how important procurement is in their daily lives; it’s this esoteric area,” he said.
Conway’s latest project involves working with a team to write procurement preference laws for Iraq. It’s part of the United Nations Women in Iraq program.
The group is trying to write legislation that promotes women contractors in Iraq.
“There’s a lot of Western money going into Iraq and by pushing small business preferences geared to women we diversify the contractor pool and invariably hope to diversify the ultimate leadership in those places,” Conway said.
She’s written similar procurement preference policies for small businesses in Hawaii.
If you get women intertwined into the contractor base, she said, they become very powerful in their own right and employ other women and become self-sustaining.
“Then you have just elevated a new cadre of independent citizen within that state,” she said. “Procurement is really cool, the things you can do with it.”
Conway also works with Native Hawaiians, Maori in New Zealand and other indigenous groups around the world on what she calls “social entrepreneurism.”
She teaches them how to properly value their intangible assets and negotiate for optimal revenue streams to help make those communities sustainable.
Soifer said he sees Conway’s constant fight for minority rights, particularly in a place as diverse as Hawaii, as a motivating force for both her and her students.
By diversifying the power structure, Conway said Hawaii leaders could take the state beyond its status quo norms.
“We are a much richer place by including people — really including people — and not putting people in their prescribed places,” she said.
Without change, Conway fears Hawaii could become irrelevant.
“I would love if everyone thought of Hawaii as a microcosm of as perfect a society as we could achieve around this globe,” she said.
“We could really be that microcosm. But that takes planning and vision and it takes an introspective community, and a community that is not just open to change but seeks it out.”