The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is launching a new “contact center” to improve communication with Native Hawaiian beneficiaries by prioritizing calls and referring callers to the appropriate division.
The agency gets an average of 13,556 calls per month, and people have complained in the past that their calls would ring with no answer.
“If that phone rings down there, they’ll pick it up after the first ring,” says Cedric Duarte, the agency’s spokesman, adding that the center is in a “soft launch” phase. “They’re there to answer the phone and direct beneficiaries to the appropriate department and make sure that phone calls are followed up on.”
The center is still in its nascent stage — an official announcement hasn’t yet been made — but it’s part of a broader effort by the department to improve its communication and outreach to both applicants and existing homesteaders. Some 28,000 people are on the agency’s waitlists for various types of homesteads, and the agency has been under fire for years for its slow progress toward placing Hawaiians in homes.
Part of the problem is the challenge of communicating with applicants, who may move several times while waiting for a homestead property in the right location. Sometimes the agency will send out letters announcing applicants are being awarded a long-awaited lot, only to get the letter back with the stamp “return to sender.”
Duarte said the agency is in the process of collecting applicants’ emails to ensure that they’re receiving the department’s announcements. For the first time in several years, he said the agency’s public information and information specialist jobs are all fully staffed.
“We’ve relied solely on mail,” Duarte says, adding that the agency now plans to supplement that with other forms of communication. “We’ll send a letter, we’ll send an email, we’ll do Facebook, we’ll try to work with our media partners to get the word out.”
The burgeoning “contact center” is part of that effort. After hearing complaints about the department not answering the phone, the agency decided to reorganize positions within a department. DHHL hired new staff this summer and has slowly been phasing in the new operator service.
While the agency is sharing more information via email, when it comes to actually awarding homesteads, the agency still relies solely on snail mail. Announcements of awards aren’t sent by email or phone. Applicants must update their mailing addresses or they won’t get their letters. And even when the agency receives an envelope back with a new forwarding address, the agency can’t officially update the address, Duarte says — the applicant must do so themselves.
But DHHL doesn’t make updating mailing addresses easy. Applicants have to print out an update address form, fill it out and mail it to the department. There’s no way to simply update your contact information online or even by phone.
Duarte says that’s because the department relies on an old system to track all its applicants, a custom-made electronic database built in the 1980s. Duarte says the system works well but it can’t be connected to the backend of a website. Although the agency is considering updating the system, the agency hasn’t requested the funding yet to do so.
“We are working with our IT team to come up with a plan of how we are going to move this forward,” Duarte said. “But at the end of the day it’s all (about) resources. We have two IT people and that’s it.”
The department conducts frequent in-person outreach among beneficiaries, holding dozens of meetings to get feedback on community planning in addition to regular commission meetings on multiple islands.
But for those who missed this year’s meetings, there’s no public record of what went on. There are no recordings of the commission meetings available to watch on DHHL’s website. Despite a state law requiring minutes to be posted online within 40 days of a meeting, the agency has lagged behind. The most recent minutes available are from more than a year ago.
“Like a lot of agencies that have boards and commissions, we’re playing catch-up,” Duarte says, adding that the department recently became current on its annual reports.
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