Gov. David Ige and former Gov. Neil Abercrombie differ on something more important than style. They approach policymaking in diametrically opposed ways.

Ige is an incrementalist. He prefers to divide big problems into small parts, then work on a few of those at a time: We can’t be so sure, so let’s just try this.

Abercrombie was a comprehensivist. When he saw a big problem, he liked to work on the whole thing at once: Let’s get it done!

The approaches may be fundamentally different, but in fact, given how Hawaii’s government works, both can fail for the same reason. Consider both of their attempts at state information technology reform.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Sen. David Ige share a lighter moment during debate presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014

Then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie, left, and then-Sen. David Ige share a light moment during a candidate forum in Kona last year.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Here is an official description of Hawaii’s IT situation: The state’s system continues to rely on “legacy networks that were underutilized due to reliability issues.” 

Translation: The software and operating systems were so old that they no longer worked and there was no way to fix them. IT-wise that’s as bad as it gets. It’s described as “archaic and “from the dark ages.”

In fact it is not really a system at all. Hundreds of state agencies that should be linked are not. COBOL, the computer software that many of these state organizations still use, is virtually extinct, almost impossible to fix, and impossible to upgrade. In some agencies personnel people still keep records with paper and pencil.

In short, Hawaii’s information tech serves neither the public nor the bureaucracies that serve the public. Both governors agree with the description of the problem, but not the solution.

The Abercrombie administration made a comprehensive and quite innovative attempt to change this.  Abercrombie sought to improve things in one fell swoop. The whole system is broke, so fix the whole system. 

With the aid of a $6 million grant from the Omidyar Foundation and some funds from the Legislature, the administration created a State Office of Information Technology and hired a nationally known IT expert as its first director.

Abrcrombie’s centerpiece, the overall technology plan, was clearly comprehensive in its scope and hope. This plan was to transform the entire system on the basis of a 12-year strategic plan. The next step was to find a technology company that would develop the way to implement this plan.

Talk about big money. The state spent close to $11 million just for developing the specs and the capacity it needed to solicit these companies. The company that got the job would be responsible for putting the entire enterprise together.

This was not simply about change. It was about transformation. The Omidyar Ohana Fund called it “The Hawaii Technology Transformation Program.”

The word “transformation” means something greater than change. It means that something big, important, and dramatically out of the ordinary is going to happen.

Slow and Steady: Still No Guarantee

Not really. Gov. Ige abruptly and significantly changed the approach to IT reform from comprehensive to incremental. He stopped the process that was going to solicit a single vendor, which effectively scuttled Abercrombie’s comprehensive approach.

One reason was that it became clear that the state did not have the money to fund that key single vendor that could implement the plan.

But there was a more important reason. Ige does not approach policymaking that way.

Instead of trying to take on the entire system at a time, Ige’s plan focuses on a few agencies. Instead of adopting an entirely new technology, the governor’s plan builds on some relatively small IT successes that have already taken place and gradually introducing some new things. Instead of thinking about long-range success, his plan seeks to have small but important results in two years.

It is always easier to criticize the comprehensive approach because its failures tend to be more public and grandiose.

It’s a little here, a little there, less concern with broad coordination but more concern with making a few things work well right away. Then we’ll have a better idea of what to do next.

Let’s imagine how each of these approaches might work by considering the upsides and downsides. We need to use our imagination because the last governor’s approach is out of the picture while the present governor’s plan has barely begun.

It is always easier to criticize the comprehensive approach because its failures tend to be more public and grandiose. One promising but ultimately incompetent IT vendor gets the big contract, spends the money with nada results and millions of dollars down the tubes. In Hawaii we’ve heard that IT story many times.

Comprehensive reform assumes that there is enough information to plan for way down the road, and often is overly optimistic about coordination and cooperation. In the IT case, it takes a leap of faith to believe that hundreds of separate agency systems will be reduced to a handful and agencies that have not worked well in the past will suddenly see the light.

Good luck with that. In fact the political scientist Peter Schuck argues that government is inherently prone to fail because of those challenges.

Each Approach Could Fail

And yet…sometimes problems may be too big to be taken on in any but the most comprehensive ways. As risky, cumbersome and failure-prone as the big picture approach is, it might be the only way to deal with a problem as longstanding and stubborn as Hawaii’s IT.

And that leads us to the problems with Ige-style incrementalism. Its failures may be less visible and smaller, but plenty of things can go wrong. There is a kind of business as usual quality to Ige incrementalism that may not work with anything so significantly messed up and decidedly not business as usual.

If comprehensive policy failures are an explosion, incrementalist failures are a quiet sort of rot.

Consider the Ige plan’s assumptions and hopes. It assumes that over the years there will be the political will to continue to move forward. 

Organizational change requires much less optimism and much more heavy lifting than either Ige’s or Abercrombie’s approach considers.

Ige’s most critical assumptions involve organizational change. The approach supposes that small-scale successes will be effective building blocks. Its brightest ray of hope is the plan can change a broadly entrenched and often resistant organizational culture a little bit at a time.

Whatever their differences, each approach could fail for the same reason: State agencies will not act the way both models assume that they will. 

In Hawaii this is not exactly a doomsday possibility. The state auditor’s report is regularly filled with examples of state agencies not doing what they are supposed to do. It’s fair to say that this is a pervasive problem.

IT reform’s most difficult challenges are organizational, not technological. Ask anyone who has witnessed a medical clinic’s change from pencil and paper to computerized records.

The Abercrombie plan’s great leap of faith was that state workers would get as excited about transformation as the planners were. “Transformation” is a big shot boss’s word, not a worker’s.

The Ige plan’s great leap of organizational faith is that agency A is actually interested in learning from and adopting what Agency B has adopted. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that this is not regularly the case.

So what? No solution is perfect, particularly in politics. Ultimately what really is important is that organizational change requires much less optimism and much more heavy lifting than either Ige’s or Abercrombie’s approach considers.

That’s been an endemic problem in state government that can blunt the best of intentions, whether they involve big pictures or little building blocks.

A decade from now if the state continues to have serious IT problems, that will be the reason.

Disclosure: The Omidyar Ohana Fund, established by Pierre and Pam Omidyar, is managed by the Hawaii Community Foundation. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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