Danny De Gracia: We Can Fix Oahu. We Just Need The Right Mindset - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

I know that I am not alone in saying the City and County of Honolulu needs to transform into an ethical, efficient and competent organization.

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But how can Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi accomplish such a difficult task when so many others before him have not been able to succeed at reforming city departments?

I’d like to make a couple of recommendations that can be done right now for immediate effect.

Employ a four point decision-making model for everything.

Every single employee under Mayor Blangiardi needs to have a card affixed to their cubicle or office wall that says:

When Making My Decisions:
-Does it make sense?
-Is it legal?
-Is it the right thing to do?
-Would you like to be treated this way?

This simple daily reminder both sets the tone for how we expect all of our employees to act, and provides a standard for how we will hold ourselves accountable.

Make frequent use of snowflakes to keep departmental staff on their toes.

“Snowflakes” are task-oriented memos with an immediate suspense date that are sent from an executive which can contain statements that are as short as a sentence. (“Why did I see weeds growing in the public sidewalk?” “How long are the lines this week for licenses?”) They are called “snowflakes” because these memos can quickly pile up like actual snow on the desks of departments that aren’t performing.

While this may seem like micromanagement to some, this tactic is particularly useful as a disruptive motivator in the initial stages of transitioning a lethargic or poorly performing agency to an agile, initiative-taking, attention-to-detail oriented organization.

The intent of raining snowflakes on a particular department is to train them to adapt. Once the department’s culture, performance, or even leadership changes to be more trustworthy, a leader can turn off the memo storm and let that agency govern itself again.

Employ surprise operational readiness inspections.

An operational readiness inspection, or ORI, is a kind of management fire drill where a leader finds out how well an organization is performing their duties, or if that organization’s workers are even doing their duties at all. This can be a regularly scheduled annual event, but as all government agencies typically put on a “dog and pony show” where everyone’s on their best behavior when they know a leader is coming, the best ORIs are random, unannounced surprise visits.

Honolulu Hale the skyline of downtown buildings in the background.
Honolulu Hale with the skyline of downtown buildings in the background. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

During an ORI, a leader or their subordinate takes notes on inefficiencies, interviews individuals about their duties and asks them to explain their workflow, and compares everything they see against regulations or policies set by the leader. Records and past decisions are also subject to random review during an ORI. This practice makes everyone think on an ongoing basis about the possibility that anything they do or don’t do may require an explanation, and it motivates individuals by sheer fear factor to shape up or move out. (It also encourages the more talented or creative individuals to step up, even against supervisors, because they want to be noticed by higher management.)

If things don’t add up, if people are not doing their job, if unethical or illegal activity is uncovered, disciplinary action is taken. When repeatedly applied, this has the long-term effect of pushing out corrupt and incompetent people who can’t take the heat, and leaving in place only the most committed, determined, and hyper-competitive people in an organization.

Stick your hand into the bureaucracy’s performance evaluations, promotions and hiring process.

Working hand-in-hand with snowflakes and ORIs is a tactic called “reaching into the bureaucracy.” A leader can quickly re-pattern an organization by requiring that they be present or be allowed to look at and comment on all performance evaluations, promotions and new hires above a certain rank. This normally is applied at the division chief level of government, but it can be broadened to as far down as the branch or even office chief level when certain organizations are suspected to be performing poorly or are non-responsive to a leader’s efforts to get things done.

So, for example, if the city has trouble hiring people because the process takes so long, step one is to send a snowflake to the agency with too many job vacancies and to ask them, “How many applicants have you received? How many job interviews have you conducted this week alone?” And if the answer is “We got some; we haven’t interviewed anyone” the mayor will order that agency to interview every applicant they received and request to be in the room where the interview is held. He doesn’t even need to say anything; the sheer presence of him being there will influence both the interviewee and the panel conducting it.

Later, the mayor can ask the department to explain why it rated an individual a certain way, or why it hired or didn’t hire a certain individual. This will light a fire in departments to speed up their hiring, to promote only the best individuals, and in the long term have a better city government overall.

Mentor all with regular conferences featuring motivational leaders.

I’m sorry, but this one really makes me laugh. Typically, local government brings in wonky, obscure, mousey-voiced consultants and speakers to share their expertise with the city and state. The end result is that our so-called “best practices” and policies are often awkward, esoteric and downright annoying. Want to know why Oahu speed bumps are placed in the worst possible way, or why urban design is so messed up in Honolulu? Chances are, a mainland consultant told someone here to do that.

What Honolulu needs is to spend money on regularly bringing in dynamic, real-world leaders to speak to workers like NASA’s Gene Kranz, Navy Adm. William McRaven or Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell. I don’t want departmental staff that are passive, spiral-thinking in their decision-making, and lukewarm about the role of their agency with respect to the world around them. What I want is carnivorous, aggressive, highly talented people who show initiative in the City and County of Honolulu, and you should too.

We’ve often claimed that nothing on Oahu or in Hawaii can change, because people just won’t agree and just won’t respond to change. But a leader’s job is to inspire change when possible, and to enforce change when necessary. We can fix Oahu. We just need to have the right mindset.

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

I was thinking what this article was saying and it is good but the thing that came to my mind, which everyone knows, is the problem of the UNION!!! And the first comment I see below written by "wailani1961" had come to the same conclusion. She hit the nail on the head. From what I am told during all these years of my life (I'm 74 ), the government can't fire an employee. That's the biggest problem, I think. How are you going to get the support of the Union to do your plan? If you can't get their support, then you are back to the present situation and how's it's been for decades and decades. So get to work on the Union to agree and then you might have a chance to changes in Hawaii. Good ideas though.

wymotosue · 4 months ago

To improve performance one has to start with the premise that every employee wants to do a good job. Managers need to ask themselves, "have we provided an environment for the employee to do a good job"? Once this mindset is adopted, managers and employees can work collaboratively, to improve performance. The ultimate goal is to serve the community effectively.

Richard_Bidleman · 4 months ago

The problem is government doesn't function at all like private enterprise. The normal motivational tools don't work as well, or at all, in a union protected environment, where work is expected to be status quo. We have all heard of, or experienced the worker is told not to work so hard, or so fast because it makes everyone else look bad. That's a big mindset hurdle you need to overcome. Part of me thinks Mayor Rick is frustrated at what can and can't be done, in comparison to his prior job, where employees where motivated by competition, higher rewards and advancement based on performance versus tenure. It's a totally different mentality and one that's ingrained in state and city work. Good luck with this, but I'm a realist and just don't think it will work.

wailani1961 · 5 months ago

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