Gov. David Ige’s State of the State address was a reminder of how easy it is to propose but how hard it is to govern, particularly in Hawaii.

For now put aside the governor’s proposals that get most of the attention — a new state mental hospital, the transformation of the Oahu Community Correctional Center site into a diverse transit-development-oriented community, or his plans for affordable housing.

Instead, look at his less dramatic nuts and bolts plans involving government administration, because this is the heart of the problem, which is the persistently nutty ways the state does some things — the ones that drive you up the wall.

The governor answers questions from the media following his speech.
Gov. David Ige answers questions after his State of the State address. When it comes to actually making state government more effective and efficient, can he succeed where so many others have failed? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Like the state IT system that is so useless, archaic, and uncoordinated that some agencies still process payroll using paper, pencil and 3X5 cards. 

Or procurement practices — non-practices may a better description — that allow state agencies to pay millions of dollars as a reward for totally useless work. 

Or a tax department that cannot catch cheats and pay tax refunds at the same time.

Things so obviously and simply wrong should be easy to fix, right? If only.

Ige proposes to fix these by putting in place proper procedures. Nuts and bolts. This is not surprising. He is a nuts and bolts kind of guy.

Like cultures generally, government culture can change, but movement is difficult and slow. And like any culture, behavior that seems bizarre or just plain wrong to the outsider may seem perfectly normal to those inside the organization.

And he is right. His proposals are so commonsensical that it’s easy to wonder why they haven’t been done before, and then to assume that the governor’s caution is leading him to go after the low-hanging fruit.

A pretty low bar? Are you kidding? Every one of at least the last four governors has tried and failed to fix these kinds of problems.

Why, if the mistakes are so obvious, don’t they get taken care of? Actually, the persistence of these problems has nothing to do with their obviousness.

Typically we blame this on incompetent or insincere politicians who make flowery promises that they don’t know or care how to keep.

That sort of blaming may be good for your spleen and fits right into the in-the-know cynicism about politics here. But that misses the point and underestimates the problem, which in fact is deeper and harder to solve.

Governments develop political cultures that enhance some possibilities and ways of doing things and limit others.

Like cultures generally, government culture can change, but movement is difficult and slow. And like any culture, behavior that seems bizarre or just plain wrong to the outsider may seem perfectly normal to those inside the organization.

People become attached to their work routines and get distrustful of others. The incentives to stay below the radar exceed the incentives to innovate.

Over time, things that were seen as problems, like antiquated payrolls, delays in tax policies, or out-of-date procurement processes, became conditions — just the way things are. We are doing the best we can.

The longer these conditions exist, the more frightening are the attempts to change them.

This is a key reason why it is such a far cry from identifying a problem — which the state auditor does quite well, for instance — to solving it.

Overall, that’s Hawaii’s government culture.

And we’re not alone. For example, out-of-date IT systems are long-term and intractable problems in many states as well as the federal government, and for much of the same reasons as in Hawaii.

Unfortunately, despite the governor’s skills or intentions in changing the way the state operates, history suggests he will fail.

Organizational change at this level takes a long time and much work and goes far beyond the political lifetime of almost all elected officials. So elected officials have relatively little incentive to do this.

Making things better, then, is a really long haul, a risky proposition. Still, there are several important steps that should begin right now.

First, understand the importance of everyday governance. Remember that state workers affect your daily life more than legislators and governors do. The work of these bureaucrats deserves more of your attention, in a tough love sort of way.

Second, the state needs to do a better job of monitoring. That means more persistent oversight. 

That of course applies to the Legislature. Legislators have to be more skeptical and persistent regarding cabinet officials’ competence to run their organizations.

At the same time, state agencies need to spend more time monitoring the success of their own work.

The wording of policies means nothing if they are not implemented properly. Policymakers should not adopt any policy unless they know how to assess how it is working.

Third, have a better process that builds on the state auditor’s work. That office does an admirable job, but it is limited in how much and how often it can follow up to see if improvements actually take place.

All of these are pretty nuts-and-boltsy. There is an additional change that is not.

All of us — politicians and the public — have to learn to temper hopes and dreams with nuts and bolts.   

We need to adopt a more sober view of government, paying less attention to promises and more attention to the question, “How much can government really do to fix the problem?” That’s an important reality check.

Affordable housing is a good place to start. 

In his State of the State discussion about Maui agricultural lands, Governor Ige said this: “We must learn from the failures of the past and vow not to repeat them.”

Right. So think of our relationship with government as a vow — a marriage vow. You take a marriage vow as if it’s poetry — “to honor and cherish ’til death do us part.”

But the vow holds up over time only through constant hard, often tedious and underappreciated work. Elegant language and flowery words are nowhere close to enough.

And even then, of course, many marriages fail.

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