The typical way people criticize Hawaii’s governance — call this the “what Hawaii can’t do critique” — describes what’s wrong but says little about how to make things better. The Washington Post was the latest to pile on.

The problem is that the critique leads nowhere. It’s become a mantra of our frustrations rather than a catalyst of change.  Same old criticisms going nowhere.

Let’s try another approach, one that focuses on can do rather than can’t do and looks at, as they say in pro sports, positive role models. Or what Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call “thriving cities” in their new book, “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.”

Diverse leaders in Kansas City have found a way to agree on what needs to be done for the common good and strategies for how to do it.

Kevin Harber/

These vitalized places are examples of what they call “the new localism.” The lessons, they say, don’t just apply to urban settings.

So how do places that get important things done actually do it? What can Hawaii learn from this?

To get a flavor for the difference between those places and Hawaii, consider the authors’ description of Kansas City:

Kansas City has one thing that many cities lack: a consensus on where it wants to go. If you speak with people at its Civic Council or Chamber of Commerce, local philanthropists, officials at the University of Missouri Kansas City or neighborhood civic leaders, they mention the “Big Five,” macro-goals set by civic and business leaders to drive change over time.

Yes, I had the same reaction that you probably have: Wow, this is so different from Hawaii!

Lack of capital may be the most formidable challenge for Hawaii. Or maybe Hawaii has underestimated its potential.

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City because the city has developed a political approach recognizing how much the world has changed and how much civic work needs to free itself from depending on government at any level.

Advocates of new localism say cities and states must especially learn to rely less on the federal government. Cities tend to underestimate the enormous resources at their disposal to deal with their own issues and objectives.

More and more, solutions to problems have to be local.

In Kansas City and the other successful cities the authors discuss, governing is “driven by collaboration rather than coercion” and “stewarded by diverse networks rather than by elected decision makers alone.”

Power devolves downward and sideways. We need less focus on elected officials and more on a wide variety of people across all kinds of sectors, including government, rolling up their sleeves to take get important, tangible stuff done. This is problem-solving rather than rule-making, pragmatism rather than ideology.

It’s no surprise that Hawaii falls short. But I am not interested in playing the usual can’t-do blame game here. Instead, consider how this alternative frame of reference might guide Hawaii.

In Kansas City, success required at least five ingredients:

Private capital: Kansas City, as well as the other “thriving cities” like Pittsburgh, has big-shot foundations willing to make large investments (not simply grants) in their cities.

Hawaii has some heavy financial hitters like Kamehameha Schools, but we have never had an industrial base that created such local wealth. Lack of capital may be the most formidable challenge for Hawaii. Or maybe Hawaii has underestimated its potential.

Lateral decision-making: Sure, Hawaii has neighborhood boards, an accessible Legislature, and a good deal of governmental outreach into the communities. But all of that is very different from new localism where the process of network governance depends upon nongovernmental institutions.

Collaboration: This is a buzzword in Hawaii, but places practicing the new localism take collaboration to an entirely different level. It’s not an appendage of the process, but rather its heart and brain.

Consensus-building: Another Hawaii buzzword, but I can’t think of anything that even remotely resembles a broad consensus of the kind Kansas City has. We just don’t do policy that way in Hawaii.

New definitions of leadership: In thriving places, leadership means something specific and different from the way we tend to think about it in Hawaii.

First of all, the leaders in those cities are typically not the politicians. The leaders emerge from the process.

Second, the most important leadership skill is “network intelligence,” the ability to identify the networks needed to solve a problem and help get the people in that network to work together. Often these leaders are not very well known.

At this stage that frame of reference isn’t a blueprint or a formula for Hawaii. But it can be an important thought trigger.

So use your imagination. What would this process be like if we tried it in the islands to deal with any issue you want?

That’s hard to do because we are so unaccustomed to conducting or even thinking about our politics that way.

From the get-go, making this kind of change requires what Katz and Nowak call “culture busting,” a basic shift in our understandings. That involves different ways of talking, assessing and doing.

Culture busting is difficult and risky, whether it involves an indigenous village, a bureaucracy, a family or a political process.

There are times, though, when you gotta do what you gotta do.

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