A majority of Hawaii voters surveyed support using taxpayer money to improve online access to state services, but only a quarter would back higher taxes to pay for these upgrades, according to a recent survey from Transform Hawaii Government.

This comes as the Covid-19 pandemic has made virtual access to government agencies more important than ever, with residents unable to visit state offices in person and phone lines flooded with tens of thousands of callers.

“During the pandemic, we experienced more directly what it feels like to not have access to services at a time when everyone’s sheltering in place,” said THG executive director Christine Sakuda. “We wanted to take this opportunity to gauge the public’s experience accessing government services, and do they support the development of online services in the future?”

Unemployment Hawaii Convention Center
Problems reaching the state unemployment office are evidence of the need to upgrade the state’s IT systems, an organization advocating for better access says. Courtesy: DLIR

Interviewing more than 700 registered voters September through October, researchers found six in 10 Hawaii voters either “strongly or somewhat” backed allocating funds to update the state’s internet infrastructure – compared to 24% who were opposed. Just over half of those polled agreed this would help eliminate wasted revenue, more than double the voters who disagreed.

Democratic voters were somewhat more likely to endorse updating online access; however, more Republicans and independents approved of diverting budgetary funds to support digital upgrades than those who did not.

Yet despite substantial support for an IT overhaul, the report found only 24% of Hawaii voters were willing to pay more in taxes to enable these upgrades, compared with 58% indicating they would not support potential tax hikes.

One reason behind this tepid support, Sakuda said, was likely the state’s failure to communicate its vision for a “digital and tech savvy government.”

“What is the state’s collective commitment to providing the best services to the community as efficiently and as effectively as possible?” Sakuda said. “What does that look like?”

The report also examined voters’ past experiences with digital government and found, despite near-ubiquitous access to internet and high levels of digital literacy, three in 10 respondents had never interacted with state agencies online. The other 67% of Hawaii voters reported “mixed results” when trying to access services over the internet – only one in three were usually successful on their first try, with 43% saying they needed multiple attempts and 15% ultimately unable to find the assistance they needed.

Overall, only 21% of respondents found the state’s current online system “adequate.”

While there have been some efforts to update the state’s IT infrastructure, progress has been patchwork, Sakuda said. This has led to significant headaches reaching essential offices such as the state Unemployment Insurance Division, which at one point found its 40-year-old mainframe inundated with 40,000 calls per day amid record high jobless rates during the pandemic shutdown.

The division “was in the process of modernizing; the pandemic just hit at the wrong time,” Sakuda said. “They did not have enough resources to modernize and meet the extreme uptick in need at the same time, so they had to rely on an older system, which resulted in a lot of frustration, people not being called back and unable to get through the application process.”

Given the choice, just over half of voters would opt to access state agencies over the internet, the report found, compared to 29% who prefer in-person service. And when logging in to state websites, 64% of respondents said they would prefer to use one username and password across the state’s agencies, outnumbering six to one those who prefer the status quo.

With billions of federal funds filling state coffers in the wake of November’s historic infrastructure bill and statewide elections later this year, Sakuda says Hawaii faces a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to transform the way it serves its residents.

“It’s great to see that voters are internet savvy and that they support government services being more and more online,” Sakuda said. “We need to continue the conversation … to ensure that the investments happen in the right place at the right time.”

“Especially now.”

The Omidyar Ohana Fund at The Hawaii Community Foundation supports Transform Hawaii Government. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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