Recent articles based on David Graeber’s essays and book on “managerial feudalism,” first published in The New Yorker, have been making headlines and provoke one to consider how it applies to Hawaii.

NOTE: pick the correct link

Having worked in three Hawaii state government departments, I can attest to the general feeling especially among younger clerical staff that most of our job consists of what Graeber would classify as “sh*t work.”

That is to say that most of the tasks handed to clerical and support staff from administrative staff have no great impact on the overall services of the department to the general public. They exist because someone back 30 years ago got a position description approved and created a job so that they would not have to deal with so much paperwork. It had nothing to do with policy implementing but because the government of the day needed to generate documents and patronage.

Job creation within civil service and political patronage is long a tradition. The Republicans did it during the Territorial years. The Democrats do it now.

But we need to come to terms with the fact that our bureaucracy (and its managerial feudal culture) is an impediment to moving Hawaii forward. Making Hawaii more responsive to the needs of its local residents as well as developing new industries away from tourism and stopping the brain drain are all tied to reforming the way we govern and administer government.

I am not in any way saying that we should deregulate certain sectors but rather we should rationalize our processes and human resources more effectively, while at the same time investing heavily in retraining our civil service and in making processes online while eliminating outdated procedures.

Local government agencies need to move more paperwork, as seen here, online. Flickr: Christian Schnettelker

For example, in one government agency I know of, their G-1s (leave requests) are not online but must be mailed to the director for her signature and must attain a set of stamps that is then scanned. That process comes from another era and it is one of the sh*t work that clerical staff have to do. All government departments should come up with best practices and the role of clerical staff should be to help continually to modernize processes.

To that end, there also needs to be a dramatic shift in the way our bureaucracy operates beginning with the institutional culture, beginning with the backbone of the bureaucracy — the clerical staff which includes office assistants, clerks, and secretaries. Clerical classifications should be streamlined and highly specific positions within the clerical staff should be eliminated. There should also be a uniform set of procedures within each branch of government that would allow a clerical staff member to seamlessly move to any government department.

The Department of Human Resource and Development should train all clerical staff in order to ensure uniformity of processes as well as state-wide policies before say an office assistant be deployed to work in any government department. In this way, this would reduce the way that some administrators bully their subordinates on processes through unnecessary nitpicking and would allow every new office assistant to share the same base knowledge and best practices.

Also, by eliminating highly specialized clerical staff, it would remove the source of patronage through a system of “Approval of Temporary Assignments” and “Requests for Exemptions” whereby some administrators will appoint their friends due to a “lack of qualified candidates.”

Sh*t Job

In line with this, the layers of bureaucracy need to be removed and clerical staff should not be limited to “sh*t job” tasks but have input on policy direction and allowed to take classes at community colleges for free to constantly upgrade their skill set and follow the technology trends.

This is the 21st century. There is no reason why G-1s for example need to be hand stamped when e-Sign and other programs exist.

Administrators should also be streamlined, their position descriptions simplified, and a good lot of them should be retrained. One of the worst trainers I ever had bluntly told me that “Well, bureaucracy is what keeps us employed.” That type of attitude should be driven out of civil service.

Administrators should be encouraged to innovate. Every government department should be assessed on a metric consisting of at least the following basic areas: crisis management; efficiency; customer/public service; financial management; technology usage; transparency; personnel morale and employee; innovation; International Standards Organization compliance (which is being implemented in other state governments but not here); and, human resource management and employee retention.

Administrators should be encouraged to improve their department or unit’s metrics through incentives including performance bonuses for all staff as well as faster step movement. Redundancies in staffing should also be eliminated thus reducing red tape.

Serving The Public

But the greatest reform in the bureaucracy needs to come from aspect of morale boosting.

Most civil servants that I know of, love serving the public. They want to contribute more to society. But far too often, people who want to innovate and see the need for reforms get beaten down by older more senior administrators and trainers who have for too long been comfortable in their own positions.

The civil service needs to go back to its core motto — “Public Service is a Public Trust” — and to support transformative team leadership in the public sector. The only way that the state government can attract the best and brightest locally is by promoting the civil service as dynamic and useful to society and changing its current institutional culture to one that embraces Hawaiian values, diversity, innovation, skillfulness and standards that even apply to the private sector.

Administrators should be encouraged to innovate.

In order to help the public and ease the amount of paperwork generated, there should be a general rule that any set of paperwork on the state level that does not require construction or health inspection, should only require a maximum of two signatures and two windows to complete — if it’s not online.

The state and county pay for maintaining “legacy programs” and there are some agencies that run programs from the Windows 95 operating system. While one can argue that upgrading these systems and retraining the bureaucracy will be expensive, but so is maintaining outdated programs and stocking up on paper and stamp ink not to mention the corruption that is able to slide through the hands of some.

The hardworking members of the civil service as well as the general public deserve a transformative and modern bureaucracy to act as a catalyst for changing the reputation of Hawaii as one of the worst places to conduct business to one of the best.

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