Neal Milner: Hawaii Needs Inspired Public Workers, Not Bureaucrats - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeIt’s been a terrible couple of months for the state’s Department of Public Safety and Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

So, what else is new? The bad bureaucracy beat goes on. And on. Shape things up!

Quit thinking that way. It gets us nowhere. Well, maybe not totally nowhere, but you can’t fix this just by kicking butt.

A boot in the okole, which the boss Mister Dithers has been literally doing to Dagwood Bumstead since Herbert Hoover was president, is all about stopping bad behavior. It hasn’t changed Dagwood.

A good public workforce needs more than that. It needs workers who are inspired by their work and see it as a calling — where initiative is rewarded instead of feared.

It needs a public that views these workers with humanity and not stereotypically as faceless drones sitting around waiting for their retirement.

It needs strategies that recognize troubles with bureaucracies but then deal with them in more effective ways. These approaches exist, as you will see.

But first let me get you out of your usual bureaucracy-sucks mindset by giving you these questions to consider.

What if the workers in DPP or the Department of Public Safety saw their work as a labor of love and a calling?

What if they were inspired by their work and reveled in the challenges of even the smallest details?

What if we humanized these workers instead of stigmatizing them by calling them bureaucrats?

What if inspiration became a key part of their job descriptions?

Department of Planning and Permitting.
The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting is perpetually a source of complaints. It is many workers short with a fast-expanding mission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

There are two reasons why we need to go beyond the usual way to think about bureaucracies.

First, that thinking has not accomplished what we want. Second, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because there are many good examples to draw from.

As Alina Okun, a global consultant doing this work, put it, such organizations “are proving that it is possible to incorporate the benefits of bureaucracy, such as control and consistency, and avoid the disadvantages of bureaucracy, which are usually exhibited through mediocrity, inflexibility and apathy.”

Reason 1: The Vicious Cycle Of Disaster And Complaints Doesn’t Work

The Department of Public Safety recently lost thousands of prisoner medical records, many of which the department will never get back. Why? Because for almost a decade no one ever downloaded the umpteen newer versions of the medical records software until that ancient plucky, overburdened version went kaput.

This has been described as a catastrophe and epic failure, which is being generous.

Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting, which is perpetually a source of complaints, is also in crisis mode. It is many workers short with a fast-expanding mission. In the not very distant past, some employees have gone to jail for taking bribes. There’s a strong, lingering feeling that some corrupt people still work there.

Plus, DPP faces a backlog of over 4,000 building permits. Finally, the two top administrators recently resigned because they don’t share Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s approach to cleaning this all up.

“It is possible to build organizations that are big and fast, disciplined and empowering, efficient and entrepreneurial, and bold and prudent.” — Alina Okun, a global consultant

Nothing new here really. Just two more episodes in the sad story of Hawaii’s dysfunctional governments.

And that’s the problem, not just because the agencies are doing the same but also because the attempts to fix them usually disappear into the mysterious miasma of broken promises and broken dreams.

It’s the same old, going-in-a-circle pattern of critical government screw-ups followed by the usual public responses. The same old script: we demand more efficiency and oversight. We complain about those hapless bureaucrats who can’t get the job done.

It’s a deeply fortified unbroken circle that we need to break because it does not get the problem fixed.

As a therapist would say, how does that make you feel? Angry, frustrated, cynical, powerless? Sure, all of those.

So why continue to rely on the same things over and over?

One other thing: our usual view reinforces a negative stereotype that is unfair and makes matters worse.

In a common situation, like, say, when you and you friends are complaining about government, the terms “state worker,” “government employee,” “works for the city” aren’t used as job descriptions. They are used as stigma.

“She works for the state.” Bad. “She works for State Farm.” Good.

That’s disrespectful. More important, though, the views that see public service workers as a bunch of hopelessly lazy, resistant drones who sit around daydreaming about their pensions takes all the air out of the chances to make real change.

Reason 2: There Are Better Ways

Alina Okun, that consultant I mentioned earlier, describes organizations that have recognized the problems with bureaucracy like those common in Hawaii and addressed them in innovative ways.

These innovators show that it is “possible to build organizations that are big and fast, disciplined and empowering, efficient and entrepreneurial, and bold and prudent,” Okun writes.

The people running these organizations have created “human-centric models” because they know that “higher-order capabilities are the product of passion, of a commitment to something that inspires us, something outside ourselves that needs and deserves the best of who we are.”

“Initiative, creativity, and valor can’t be commanded.”

Fast, disciplined and efficient but also inspiring, creative, and human-centric. That’s the objective Hawaii needs.

The thing is that, like politics generally here, the usual way we approach change is so dreary, repetitive and ineffective. You know, “nothing ever gets done here!” As a result, the public develops a Debbie Downer cynicism that perpetuates itself.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks before the EMS director at a press conference held at Honolulu Hale on the ambulance that caught fire. Ireland said that the Honolulu Fire Department was taking the lead on the fire investigation.
The DPP’s top two officials recently resigned because they didn’t share Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s vision for change at the agency. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Gov. David Ige has been a disappointment when it comes to bureaucratic reform. Judging from Blangiardi’s very candid recent Civil Beat interview, the mayor shows real promise, though of course he is still new to the job.

Unless we bust through the usual crippling view of reality and go beyond impulses of anger and control, the status quo will still be status quo.

Now, go back and look at the kinds of work situations those innovative organizations are trying to create for bureaucrats. They sound like the way all of us should be able to work.

Some of you already do. A whole lot of you don’t. That’s too bad.

A couple of years ago Mark Kuhn, an Iowa farmer, built a lawn-tennis court alongside his corn fields. He was inspired by a 40-year-old dream and his son’s recent suicide.

The story inspired me, maybe because it brought back the wonderful memories that I have about teaching in a small Iowa college when I was starting out. Maybe it’s because the writer tells the story so compellingly.

There’s another, more important reason. For Kuhn the tennis court has become a labor of love and a passion. He does not see the work he does by himself to maintain the court as repetitive grunt work but as a creative craft that allows him to lose himself.

The court is open to the public. The people love it.

Sure, the Kuhn farm in Charles City, Iowa, is a long way from the Department of Planning and Permitting headquarters on King Street, but there is something universally good about the way Mark Kuhn sees and does his work.

That universe is one we should all strive to be a part of.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Reading Neal's writing is like being in class again, always interesting. I would throw this out to my old professor. Is it really whether the worker and not the times/technology/management of the times? During my career, I've watched how our paperwork abounds all around us from everything we do. Offices had stacks and stacks of written paperwork and tons of filing cabinets with staff just to work on processing the paperwork of the paperwork. Automation/technology coupled with shrinking budgets and inventive management decided that they didn't need the filing cabinets or staff to process the paperwork of the paperwork and put it on the remaining staff. It didn't really address all that existing paperwork, so it languished and fell by the wayside. Think of microfilm, microfiche, reduced paper worked but not interchangable technology with digital. Family albums, slides, films. Important data until someone must process it for conversion/retention. Federal/State/County/Private all have the same dilemma. Has man ever changed from the days of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

patman · 2 weeks ago

Like Neal, I was a State worker - taught at UHM too. Most profs. and staff I worked with did take their duty to work with students in their educational progress seriously. Our kids at DoE schools had some really inspiring and dedicated teachers, so there are lots of 'State workers' who fulfill Neal's goal. And then there were others who pulled less thain their weight., But having also worked in the private sector I saw the same pattern. We tend to criticize public employees for a couple of reasons they are an easy target and often can't fight back, and, of course, we are paying them.

Robo · 2 weeks ago

Great article! What comes to mind when you describe what the ultimate bureaucracy should be about, is the Ukrainian people, and their army, and the way they carry themselves for the greater good instead of the personal gain, in order to keep their countries democracy

Scotty_Poppins · 2 weeks ago

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