How do we fix Hawaii’s broken government and make things work in the Aloha State?

It’s a question that keeps coming up, and yet no one seems to do anything about it.

Of course, we all act surprised when we find out female athletes in public schools haven’t had proper facilities for decades, or that the Honolulu rail project is over-budget, but deep down, most people in Hawaii expect local government to be dysfunctional or nonresponsive and have already emotionally disengaged from being part of the solution.

A litany of critical government audits tells the story over and over: “inadequate, improper, unsustainable”; “a culture of ambivalence which willfully ignores”; “failure to execute”; and my personal favorite, “stretched thin and frustrated.”

Hawaii is broken because our local government has drifted into a poor organizational culture and a lack of focus. As the late Peter Drucker famously said, management is doing things right, but leadership is doing the right things.

Sometimes, the government leaders running the show at the State Capitol and elsewhere in Hawaii need to let some nongovernment types have access to the cockpit.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In Hawaii government, we have a nasty habit of substituting laws for values, bean-counter evaluation for mentorship, micromanagement for attention to detail, logic models for leadership, and do-as-I-say bossiness for expertise.

This kind of environment eats great people and good intentions for lunch. Worse, it makes people risk-averse, which leads to conformity/self-censorship rather than productive collaboration.

This is precisely the reason why over the years, investigations frequently discover government agencies had long-running problems that people knew about but did nothing to fix, or why seemingly simple procurements become expensive taxpayer nightmares.

The people most likely to succeed in this kind of toxic system or get anything major accomplished are often the ones willing to cut corners to simplify compliance, impose their ambition with minimal consideration for others, speak without empathy, and act suddenly or with deceit to reduce public (or internal bureaucratic) opposition.

That’s also why many local agencies are short-staffed. Funding issues aside, good people often quit in droves after being burned.

How To Fix Things

Our past failures do not have to determine our future. We can fix Hawaii government and make it more inclusive, more responsive and and more transparent.

The best place to find an effective organizational culture model is in the field of aviation, with a concept called Crew Resource Management.

A large number of aviation mishaps in the mid-20th century led experts to recognize that poor communication and bad situational awareness resulted in fatal disasters because small problems compounded into catastrophic failure.

Flight crews often hesitated to question an airliner’s captain, because in those days the captain was traditionally viewed as the first and final say on the aircraft, even when they were wrong. Eventually, that organizational culture gave way to a new tradition where frank communication and respectful disagreement was encouraged.

On July 19, 1989, CRM played an important role in saving 185 passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 232 after an engine explosion resulted in a loss of steering control.

When the explosion occurred, one of the passengers happened to be a DC-10 flight instructor who informed a flight attendant of his expertise and willingness to help.

Imagine if we stopped imposing programmatic “best practices” on people and paid attention to the human lives impacted by the things we do.

The flight attendant listened to the passenger and informed the captain; the captain in turn listened to the flight attendant, and permitted the instructor into the cockpit to help. That quick, responsive feedback between a mere passenger and the captain injected special expertise into a grave crisis and helped save lives.

If a captain allowed a passenger with a desire and the qualifications to help into the cockpit of an airliner, why can’t our local government allow people with concerns to have their say?

Can you imagine if ordinary Hawaii residents could get that kind of access to our governor, or mayor, or the directors of our various departments and agencies? Imagine if we stopped imposing programmatic “best practices” on people and paid attention to the human lives impacted by the things we do.

Our local government needs to learn to respect people’s concerns, both in and especially out of government. When concerns arise, we need to practice CRM by listening to people and when necessary, acting on the information presented to us.

Instead of burying problems, we should work on them together. And when people are wrong, we shouldn’t shame them for making mistakes, because we don’t want people to be shy about speaking up the next time when they might actually be right.

Hawaii’s long-held traditions of inclusion, respect and humility demand a government with an organizational culture that mirrors it.

Gov. David Ige and all of our mayors need to seriously think about how far we have fallen and how much we can take back, if we would simply start listening, respecting and helping each other again.

A note to our readers

While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.

About the Author