Here's A Way For Hawaii's Government To Get Much Better At Including The Public - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Aaron Sewake

Aaron Sewake is an engineer who was born and raised in Hilo and now calls Oahu home.

Modern technology has significantly changed the way the world interacts and communicates. Our government would be wise to leverage this technology to change the way that it interacts with its citizens.

Our current rules and methods for notifying the public about open government meetings are outdated and ineffective. It is much too difficult for citizens to find all of the public notices they need to stay informed and participate in the government’s decision-making process.

This lack of citizen awareness and involvement often leads to situations where long-planned projects encounter public backlash once they break ground.

Recent examples include the Kahuku wind turbines and the Ala Moana flood control projects. In both cases, frustrated residents of the areas noted that they weren’t aware of the planning process and felt that the government was ignoring them or trying to force through a project.

The government replied that it had been reaching out to the community and holding public meetings for years.

The gap between the government’s outreach efforts and the public’s ability to access information about those efforts is significant. We need to leverage new technology to find a simple-to-use, easily accessible solution that makes it easier to disseminate public notices and collect public testimony.

State and city/county governments should work together to create a centralized, publicly accessible online database for all government communications. All notifications inputted into the system should be categorized by level of government, responsible department, type of notification, affected geographic location, affected sector and many more keywords.

Users should be able to create a profile and set search filters for any combination of these keywords to customize their searches to their individual preference. For example, a user may choose to search for all new construction notifications in the Ala Moana area, or to search for all notifications related to the environment from all levels of government.

The user may then elect to receive an email or text notification whenever a new announcement is added to the database that matches one of their search filters.

The database should also offer an integrated calendar function so users can add any public event to a calendar by clicking on a button, which will then plot out all the events on a printable calendar for ease of reference. This calendar should also be able to sync to other commonly used calendar apps such as Outlook and Google Calendar.


Regardless of the issue, lack of citizen awareness and input during the government planning process can lead to public backlash and expensive revisions. Pictured above, lawmakers traveled to Maui to hold an informational hearing on prison issues. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat

Each public event should also have an RSVP feature, allowing users to sign up to attend an event. Data on attendees can then be used by the organization running the event to determine if the event needs to be moved to a larger venue.

A central communications authority would need to maintain the database and input new data from the various departments. Such an authority could also communicate with federal authorities to include federal notifications wherever possible.

This system should also be used to increase ease of access for users who wish to participate but cannot attend the meetings in person. Wherever possible, public meetings should include access to remote testimony or viewing. By forcing us all online, the pandemic has illustrated the feasibility of remote access.

The links to attend these meetings online should be embedded in the meeting notifications, to make them easy to find.

A means to submit written testimony online should also be included for all meetings that are open to public testimony. These may be in the form of attachments or a fillable field using a standardized format.

Submitted testimony should also be tied to more specific information based on the personal profile created with the system. This would include the user’s name, address, employment, ethnicity and other information the user chooses to include.

Kahuku wind turbines arrive off of Kamehameha Highway as protestors shout ‘hewa’.
The more input a community has into government planning early on, the greater the opportunity for discussion, compromise and agreement. On the other side of that are scenes like this one from Kahuku, with wind turbines arriving off of Kamehameha Highway to protestors shouting “hewa.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This information can then be used by decision makers to quickly break down respondent group data and analyze it to see if there are certain trends among groups. For example, decision makers may be able to see from testimony that people within a certain industry have a negative opinion on an issue, or to see the differences in opinion between people who live within an affected district and people who live in other locales.

In addition, the database should use artificial intelligence to aid in the analysis of submitted written testimony. An AI program would be able to rapidly scan all documents, extract commonly expressed sentiments and group them with a keyword or phrase.

Policymakers would then be able to click on the keyword or phrase and the system would sort out all testimony that included that sentiment (similar to the way websites sort product reviews).  This would enable policymakers to rapidly scan testimony to see the major issues that constituents have with a particular proposal — issues that policymakers can then take into consideration.

The database could also send out quick, unscientific polls on certain issues as a “temperature gauge” to enable policymakers to get a sense of how their constituencies feel about a certain topic. If the public appears to be strongly against an idea, policymakers can rethink whether the idea is worth spending time on or needs to be revised.

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One critique occasionally levied against the government is that by the time it holds an initial public outreach session on a project, too much of that project has already been planned out. What happens next is predictable: Either the government engages in an expensive and time-consuming redesign to accommodate the public’s input; or, due to the cost of redoing the plans, the government forges ahead without making changes, incurring the public’s ire.

Having a tool that will allow officials to get quick feedback on a concept before any plans are made will help the government to work more efficiently and economically.

By expanding and simplifying access to our government’s decision-making process, we can create a more responsive and systematic government through increased public participation. An empowered populace begins with an informed populace. By creating a system such as the one I’ve outlined here, we would be taking a large step toward empowering our people.

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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.

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About the Author

Aaron Sewake

Aaron Sewake is an engineer who was born and raised in Hilo and now calls Oahu home.

Latest Comments (0)

Aaron, what makes you think the Hawaii Democrats (the government class in Hawaii, they who rule) will agree to your ideas about transparency and engagement when those ideas don't benefit them?

Sally · 4 weeks ago

The only meetings I've attended over the past year have been convened on Zoom by DLNR (State of Hawaii) and NOAA (Federal). I expected all would be transparent using the Zoom platform.  Far from it.  The Chat feature was adjusted so that only the organizer could read the chats submitted.  And, the names of those attending could not be discerned/viewed.  Why this was the case I have no idea, but the lack of transparency was disappointing and far from the spirit of democracy.

A_Honu_World · 4 weeks ago

I like living in Singapore.  We just get things done.  But then every country has their own way of doing projects.  Hawaii reviews projects for years and years and that seems best for your State.

KFW · 4 weeks ago

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