The year 2020 is a big year for democracy. It is our year to count the census, to elect a president, to choose federal, state and county legislators, and to embark on efforts to improve our laws and standard of living.

As the Hawaii State Legislature gets down to business, it’s a great time to encourage and clarify how our government can be as open as possible.

Elected officials, the business community, community advocates, the many nonprofits who bolster our social safety net, and average citizens want and deserve transparency and accountability from public institutions.

Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act is among the strongest in the nation, but good laws mean little without proper implementation and enforcement.

As the Legislature itself pointed out when the Uniform Information Practices Act was passed in 1988, “Governmental agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

Can transparency be burdensome? Yes.

Does it sometimes require significant investment in the state’s capacity to accommodate these requests? Yes.

Joint Education committee meeting with Senators and Representatives pack around a full meeting room. 22 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Interested citizens pack a committee hearing at the Capitol in 2015. The authors are seeking input on such public proceedings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But such expenses are a small price to pay for a more open state government that treats the public as a partner in crafting effective policy solutions.

Here’s an idea: Let’s adopt a list of virtuous civic behavior that we are looking for to encourage and help public officials to know what we are looking for. We are calling it (drum roll, please) The Civic Virtue and Sunshine Grade Book.

How respectful, open, transparent, inviting, and professional are our democratic institutions?

Is it easy or difficult for the working public to not only observe but also participate?

Rather than grumble, let’s start by testing this out. If you attend a particular legislative hearing, for example, fill out this simple questionnaire and keep track of your results:

Date of Meeting Observed_____________________

Legislative Committee or Board Observed_____________________

Issue or Bill # Addressed___________________________________

Committee/ Board Chair___________________________________

On a scale of 1 (terrible) to 5 (terrific) use this guide to evaluate public hearings in each of the following categories:

    1. Pre-hearing Sunshine: Timely notice posting, previous minutes available.
    2. Timely posting of the agenda, action items, testimony, and (for boards) agenda materials.
    3. Attendance and attention of committee members.
    4. Ability of public to know, hear, and provide oral testimony responding to agenda items, posted materials, agency and other testimony.
    5. Demeanor and respect of chair and members: Using microphones, no private conversations or distractions, listening to testimony. Knowledge and engagement of chair and members with agency, advocates, and general public.
    6. Sufficient time allowed for public testimony. Ability to give oral testimony.
    7. The official vote is clear for the members and the public to understand.
    8. Knowledgeable question and answers on agenda items.
    9. Ability of public to testify via teleconference technology.
    10. Live streaming and then posting of public hearing.
    11. Oh, and just one more: How useful did you find this list, and your ability to use it at a hearing?

Each public hearing can “earn” up to 50 points. And each category can “earn” up to five.

If you like this idea of clarifying citizen expectations, then please let us know. Feel free to circulate this idea among your friends and colleagues.

You can download the Civic Virtue and Sunshine Grade Book here, and take it with you. Make some copies for your friends.

If you wish, you may record your grades anonymously on the Public Policy Center’s website here. This will help us to understand how well the public hearing process is working, and where it might need improvement.

The online form will remain accessible during this year’s legislative session. If we receive enough responses, we’ll share these results later this spring.

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