What Has The State Learned About HR During The Pandemic? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Victoria Fan

Victoria Fan is the interim director and associate professor at the Center on Aging at the University of Hawaii. She is chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Workgroup.

One essential task of public agencies is their ability to hire staff, rapidly and efficiently.

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In this pandemic, again and again, we saw just how much the inability to rapidly hire in the public sector hindered the government’s response to a disaster or emergency.

Be it in the hiring of contact tracers, case managers or you name the position, you’d be right to guess that rapid hiring and scaling up of operations by government was very challenging.

The inability of the public sector to rapidly hire was also remarkable given the severe unemployment the state experienced in 2020, including en masse hospitality industry layoffs — among the highest in the nation. The mismatch of the supply of labor and the inability to absorb workers despite the federal dollars pouring in was startling.

Inability To Hire Affects Ability To Spend

Inability to hire is a strong predictor of inability to spend federal dollars. The public should ask: How often does the state return federal funds due to its inability to hire?

Federal spend-down is a critical indicator of a public administrator’s measure of success. We need a Yelp of federal funding to see how much grants are spent down and how many staff are hired for those projects.

Another pandemic in our lifetime is very much expected.

The work by Hawaii Data Collaborative to try to convert and create a public database, albeit on a one-off basis, was valuable for this reason.

More needs to be done in this space to ensure better spend-down of federal dollars.

Study The Lessons Learned

There were variations across agencies in the ability to get stuff done and hire quickly.

One of these was the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, a public corporation established by statute.

DLIR UI unemployment
A protest during the pandemic held outside the building that houses the state’s labor department, which was overwhelmed with unemployment applications. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

With federal funding pouring into the state, the university research corporation’s mechanisms for short-term temporary hires were a godsend. The research corporation has repeatedly come through in efficiently and comprehensively spending down federal dollars for service and research activities in a standardized, efficient and — importantly — electronic hiring mechanism.

Further, RCUH benefits from a pool of labor, also called students, who are very keen to find employment for training in their fields in key industries.

There are no doubt other strong examples, such as the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. There is benefit to sharing those lessons with other agencies. The state needs a thorough self-study about lessons learned in the area of hiring.

Will Hawaii Be Ready The Next Time?

Modernization of state hiring infrastructure has been talked about for years. The pandemic has presented a crisis — and an opportunity — to rethink hiring in an emergency.

It is hard to think about the next pandemic when we are still in one. Yet another pandemic is just around the corner. From my study with Dean Jamison and Larry Summers, published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization in 2018, we estimated that a pandemic of the severity of 1918 happens every 100 years or so — and pandemics of less severity occur two to three times a century.

In short, another pandemic in our lifetime is very much expected.

Talking about reforming government hiring practices is not sexy. But in this case, a concern for government efficiency is a concern for equity.

If we can hire more quickly, we will respond more effectively and equitably to those most vulnerable in a pandemic.

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About the Author

Victoria Fan

Victoria Fan is the interim director and associate professor at the Center on Aging at the University of Hawaii. She is chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Workgroup.

Latest Comments (0)

"How often does the state return federal funds due to its inability to hire?"The county is also having a difficult time hiring, so another question that could be asked is: How are city services being impacted by high vacancy levels? (Think HPD, permit requests, etc.)

Natalie_Iwasa · 1 year ago

Once again a light is being shined on the state's IT system. Time to upgrade it. I wonder if there is enough technical manpower availble to make the upgrade and do they have updated skill sets to make the changes.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 year ago

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