Performance metrics from state agencies don’t always get at problems people want to see addressed.

Are we growing more of our own food? Is the state reducing the number of applicants on the Hawaiian Home Lands waitlist? Are we rehabilitating more inmates and reducing jail overcrowding?

It’s hard to find measurable, objective data that would sufficiently answer all of these questions and the dozens of others facing policymakers in Hawaii even though state agencies are required to report on their “measures of effectiveness” every year in mandatory variance reports.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, wants state departments to do a better job of tracking their performance measures and aligning those with their budget requests.

Hawaii State Capitol Building on the last day of legislative session.
Lawmakers are considering a slate of bills aimed at making state agencies better at reporting their performance goals. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

He’s introduced several bills — encapsulated in Senate Bill 291 — that passed their first hearings Tuesday. SB 291 would require the governor to ensure that measurements and goals contained in various budget-related reports reflect the current responsibilities of state agencies, address future needs and align with the overall budget.

“Right now, when you look at the variance reports, the budget doesn’t really reflect the goals that they have,” Dela Cruz said.

Take the Department of Public Safety, for example. DPS tracks metrics like the percentage of its inmate population that participates in academic or vocational programs across the entire state corrections system.

But there’s no detail on the participation in those types of programs for each correctional center. Most only track the average number of inmates, number of escapes and number of releases.

Other facilities include the number of inmates participating in furlough or residential programs. But there’s no record in the variance reports of how many inmates actually complete those types of programs.

“That’s versus all the problems that we’re talking about: too many prisoners per cell, did they reduce that? Are they able to?” Dela Cruz said. “We’re trying to address all that but there’s no specific goals for them.”

The state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands tracks metrics like the percentage of lots it planned to develop that actually are developed, the number of loans approved and the number of leases canceled. But there’s no metric that clearly shows how many applicants were taken off the DHHL waitlist that’s grown to more than 29,000.

The reports don’t get into the details of ongoing department activities, such as DHHL’s progress on spending $600 million to develop more than 2,700 lots. It’s now back with an additional budget request of $30 million in each of the next two years that was met with criticism by state lawmakers like Dela Cruz who want more details on the department’s spending plans.

Maui Community Correctional Center.
DPS tracks metrics about inmate participation in academic or vocational programs systemwide but doesn’t break them down by facility. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Gov. Josh Green said he supports bills like those Dela Cruz is proposing.

“I strongly support the intent of these measures, which is to improve budget metrics and transparency,” the governor said in a written statement.

At a hearing on SB 291 and related measures on Tuesday, Budget and Finance Director Luis Salaveria said his department does not think the bills are necessary.

“But we are willing to work with the Legislature to come up with a format that we believe would be helpful for everybody,” he said.

SB 291 wouldn’t be the first push to drill down into government spending and whether the state is hitting all of its benchmarks.

In 2019, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who at the time was chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, implemented a policy on zero-based budgeting, which required departments to justify every dollar they were asking for and essentially attached their funding to performance measures. Critics of these performance measures contained in variance reports have pointed out that they are largely self-reported and leave glaring holes.

“We’re trying to address all that but there’s no specific goals for them.” — Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz

Tom Yamachika, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, said most departments have done well to track their own performance measures. However, he has a different issue with the variance reports.

“Their metrics are reasonable, but the problem is some just blow it off,” he said.

He points to agencies like the airports division in the state Department of Transportation.

For several years now, the division has not kept track of some of its performance measures, including average times between touchdown and arriving at the gate, and average times between boarding and takeoff.

It also doesn’t keep track of the operating cost per square foot of airport space, or the number of accidents that occur at airports every year. In its report from 2014, the DOT noted that many performance measures were outdated, and it hasn’t kept track since then.

Other departments stop collecting data because they lose funding for certain programs. In its most recent variance report, the state Department of Health had no data for live births between 2021 and 2022 because it no longer had a grant that helped pay for that data.

Other programs are new and don’t have any data yet either. One is the School Facilities Authority, which is tasked with spending $200 million in the next 18 months to build preschool classrooms. It’s asking the Legislature this year for more staff to help it accomplish that goal.

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Some agencies like the state airports division stopped reporting data on its performance metrics. Others have struggled to keep up, or have found that old metrics are now outdated. (Cory Lum/Civil beat/2022)

Every year, government agencies are required to produce reams of reports and other documents mandated by law. On top of that, the Legislature asks for dozens of more reports after each session on a variety of topics.

Dela Cruz has another bill scheduled for a hearing Tuesday to make sure departments are getting all their reports in on time.

“If won’t do us any good if they send us their information way in May,” which is when session is already over, Dela Cruz said.

Yamachika said it’s really up to lawmakers to ensure that these new reports and performance metrics don’t just become paper exercises that departments easily breeze through or blow off. But it could also add some additional stress on already overburdened departments.

Green said more detailed reports will require additional staff time, but that is something the state is already working on.

The Office of the Public Defender is one of the agencies that doesn’t have data this year on its performance metrics, which includes caseloads for its attorneys. But its report says the office is reevaluating what its performance measures should be.

“It’s hard for us to evaluate effectiveness, we don’t do it on wins and losses, that doesn’t matter,” Public Defender James Tabe said. “It’s as long as we’re able to effectively represent everybody that gets sent to us.”

The office is still backlogged with cases from the coronavirus pandemic, which are stacking up with new cases that come in every day. Tabe said anecdotally that his lawyers feel “they’re underwater right now.” He said he hasn’t had much time to think about what the office’s new measures of effectiveness should be.

“It’s really just to keep things afloat,” Tabe said of his work. “So that we can be effective rather than do the bureaucracy of measuring it.”

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