Remote Testimony Worked Well This Session. Now Let's Make It Even Better - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Sandy Ma

Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan democracy organization focused on creating an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest and not special interests. Common Cause Hawaii is dedicated to holding power accountable.

Younghee Overly

Younghee Overly is chair of the AAUW Hawaii Public Policy committee.

The 2021 Hawaii legislative session was momentous and not just for the issues addressed (or left unaddressed). It was conducted entirely remotely for the first time, given that the Capitol was closed to the public due to COVID-19.

For years, advocates have supported remote public testimony. This would seem reasonable and necessary, given our island state and with the Capitol located on Oahu. Hawaii and Maui county councils have had a hybrid system, allowing both in-person and remote testimony at satellite locations.

The Legislature had, unfortunately, always deemed it too difficult or maintained that there was insufficient interest to justify the expense of retrofitting the Capitol to institute remote legislative hearings. It took the devastating effects of a global pandemic to bring remote testimony to the physically closed Legislature in 2021.

Given the logistical scramble to hold the entire 2021 legislative session remotely, the Legislature and its administrative team are to be applauded for the overall conduct of the remote 2021 session. It was a learning experience for all — from legislators to advocates — and mostly a positive one.

People were able to participate in the legislative process without having to take time out of work, find and pay for child or family care, get on a plane or drive to Honolulu (with the attendant greenhouse gas emissions) and try to locate parking. All islands operated on the same playing field.

The only way in is Zoom: With Hawaii’s Legislature largely locked down by COVID-19, remote public testimony became a viable reality for the first time this year. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Oahu residents did not have more access to legislators by merely having the Capitol situated in Honolulu. People appreciated the convenience of being able to testify from anywhere, enabling some to testify at hearings for the first time ever. Legislators also liked the convenience of having constituents weighing in on matters without having to appear in person and increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Further, it was possible for people to participate in more than one hearing at a time with the simultaneous use of computers, tablets and smartphones! If there was no time to testify on Zoom or watch a hearing on YouTube, the archiving of all hearings and floor votes on YouTube for later viewing was tremendously helpful. Most importantly, people were able to participate in our democracy while staying safe during a highly contagious pandemic.

Overall, people had a positive experience with the remote 2021 legislative session and want remote legislative testimony to continue even after the COVID-19 threat passes.

While people’s experiences with remote testimony were mostly positive, some improvements could be made to the process.

Standardizing committee hearings will create protocols to elevate legislative civic engagement. During the 2021 legislative session, some committees read an opening statement of how hearings would proceed while others did not. Some committees had visible timers for testifiers and others did not and would interrupt testifiers in mid-sentence to stay within the time limit.

Even YouTube broadcasts of committee hearings were not standardized. For instance, not all committees had the bill number on the YouTube video so that a person could know which bill was being discussed. Some committees also had the hearing agenda link available on YouTube.

These “hacks” help everyone follow the hearings with ease because there is no one to ask when viewing proceedings remotely. Advocates again ask for written testimony to be made publicly available prior to the start of all hearings so that it is possible to know what testimony agencies and testifiers are “standing on.”

While remote testimony was effective during the 2021 legislative session, many in Hawaii still have difficulty accessing this technology. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, nearly one out of eight Hawaii households does not have an internet subscription. Due to the 2018 lava flow disaster on Hawaii island, recently laid fiber internet cables were destroyed in some areas of the Puna district, leaving people without access to broadband.

Thus, extra effort needs to be extended to ensure that people without access to the internet, broadband, computer devices and power are still able to participate remotely. Opening remote testimony sites, as is done by the Hawaii and Maui county councils, and continuing to have the Hawaii state public library system be available for remote testimony, are critical. Providing technical assistance to kupuna or those not familiar with remote testimony applications at designated locations will also be beneficial.

Hawaii’s people have the right to participate in the legislative process; civic participation is central to our democracy. Legislators need to hear from their constituents and not only from paid advocates. Remote testimony makes it easier for people, especially those who do not live on Oahu, to participate in legislative matters. However, we have heard from both the citizenry and elected officials alike that face-to-face advocacy is still necessary and a computer screen cannot replace the human connection.

For the long-term benefit of our democracy, we must keep and improve upon remote testimony and open up the Capitol — the People’s Place — when it’s safe.

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About the Authors

Sandy Ma

Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan democracy organization focused on creating an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest and not special interests. Common Cause Hawaii is dedicated to holding power accountable.

Younghee Overly

Younghee Overly is chair of the AAUW Hawaii Public Policy committee.

Latest Comments (0)

All State board and commissions should continue allowing online, as well as in person,  testimony. You shouldn't have to drive downtown (or fly to Oahu and drive downtown) and find parking just to testify for a few minutes.

Fred_Garvin · 2 years ago

This a very thoughtful and worthwhile commentary.  I would hope that everyone of our State Legislators take note of these recommendations on how to dramatically improve the access to our State Government.  This an excellent opportunity to greatly improve both transparency and accessibility to Government proceedings by the taxpayers of Hawaii.  

DEGardner · 2 years ago

Part 2 ( due to character limits)4.  HB1286 was a hot topic.  The public then learned about "log rolling." When the House tried to drop it into another bill, the coconut wireless proved to be a way to quickly notify the public!!  Representative Saiki pulled the bill.5. The public became aware of both the Senate and House "log rolling" and the coconut wireless (social media) worked again.6.  "Log rolling" is an impressive tactic.  7. Social media watchdogs had to keep their eyes and ears open.8.  "Anything Education" was so entertaining!  Both the DOE and BOE found out the Legislature was tired of their antics, and took charge!KUDOS to all the ones behind the scene who made this work!! · 2 years ago

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