Tom Yamachika: Abercrombie And Waihee On Leadership - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Tom Yamachika

Tom Yamachika is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

On Sept. 8 the Tax Foundation was pleased to welcome former Govs. Neil Abercrombie and John Waihee III to the first ever virtual annual meeting of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

During the Zoom meeting, we had a free-flowing discussion of topics, sometimes tightly connected with taxation and public finance, and sometimes loosely connected. Many of the twists and turns in the discussion were driven by audience questions.

One of the central themes of the discussion was the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from it. The governors zeroed in on two principal drivers of our government’s response, namely structural capability and leadership.

Structural capability reflects the ability of government to respond to new things. Gov. Abercrombie mentioned that during his term in office he was worried about the state’s information technology infrastructure and tried to implement significant changes to it.

Neil Abercrombie and John Waihee at Washington Place in 2011.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Changes did happen, but vestiges of older technologies stubbornly remained — such as the two fax machines that the Department of Health’s contact tracing program has relied on to receive reports of new and suspected cases.

Structural capability also reflects the ability of people in it to respond with creative, out-of-the-box thinking, such as the COVID-19 testing effort in the Interstate H-3 Harano Tunnels spearheaded by Deputy Director of Transportation Ed Sniffen.

Leadership, loosely defined as the ability to motivate people to do what you want when they might not be willing to do it without the motivation, is an ability (or lack thereof) often cited in describing a government’s response.

No Place For Corruption

Gov. Waihee identified three essential aspects of leadership.

First, there must be no corruption. If the public thinks you as a leader are doing something wrong, they will have less motivation to follow you.

Second, there needs to be openness, and third, there needs to be clear communication to the constituency of what and why.

The electorate doesn’t like to be told to shut up and do what they’re told. They need to have some sense of not only the desired behavior but also the reasons behind it before they are able to buy in.

The openness aspect seemed to be lacking at least in our government’s initial response to the crisis. When the emergency proclamations giving us the stay-at-home orders and quarantining came down from the fifth floor of the Capitol, the Governor suspended in its entirety the state’s chapter mandating public access to government records, and suspended a large part of the state’s open meetings laws.

The governor walked back the suspensions a little at the beginning of May, but it seems that the tone and direction of the executive branch already had been set. Not even the Legislative Auditor was able to obtain cooperation with its information gathering efforts at the Department of Health or the Department of Education.

The electorate doesn’t like to be told to shut up.

When it is that tough for a government agency to get answers, woe be to the press and the public who are trying to find essential information.

When government is challenged in structural capability or leadership, Gov. Abercrombie suggested that a possible solution is to fill in the gap with a public-private partnership, such as is being tried with the Aloha Stadium grounds.

Of course, safeguards need to be in place to be sure that the interests of the public are protected, but many situations present opportunities for win-win situations.

Our thanks once again go out to former Govs. Abercrombie and Waihee for such a thought-provoking discussion!

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Lee Cataluna: Saying Aloha To Hawaiian Airlines

Before you go…

During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.

This is perhaps the biggest, most consequential story our reporters will ever cover. And at no other time in Civil Beat’s history have we relied on your support more. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.


About the Author

Tom Yamachika

Tom Yamachika is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

Latest Comments (0)

Abercrombie, basically, came back from DC to shake things up. Ige kicked him out by, basically, saying "we do things here local kine style" The results are visible 

Frank_Rizzo · 1 month ago

I find statements from these two previous governors pretty rich.  Sorry for my negative response, but I think we all had enough of our state government across the board.  

BasicLogic · 1 month ago

Political answers from 2  governor's I have no lasting impressions of openness, lack of corruption or significant gains in IT infrastructure during their "reign". Hope they would have given insight on what the plan is going forward when all the Fed money runs out and the State, City and Feds go into the deep financial abyss. 

Cyo · 1 month ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.