Neal Milner: Don't Mistake Incompetence For Corruption - 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.

Good government is about government that knows how to do things right and does the things it promises.

A few columns ago I wrote about a pastor who taught exorcism to Bible College students. The greatest challenge he said, was to teach them not to become so overawed by the devil’s frightening power that they can’t think of anything else.

Corruption is Hawaii’s devil. It exists and we need to fight against its evil effects. But this fight, with all its passion and fury, is making us lose perspective.

As that exorcism instructor said, every bad thing is not simply the work of the devil. Similarly, most of Hawaii’s serious political failures have nothing to do with corruption.

The fervor of ferreting out corruption threatens to toss by the wayside all other serious concerns like government incompetence.

It was no trouble getting the public and even the Legislature interested in corruption once a couple of legislators and their partners in crime were caught. The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct said it reflected “a deep moral crisis.”

Those are fighting words that’ll get you off your couch.

On the other hand, a few days ago Gov. Josh Green announced that he had plans to reform state government. That got a little publicity and then, as far as most of the media and the usual government reform people are concerned, disappeared.

Not on the immediate agenda. Maybe later.

Corruption and incompetence are quite different from one another. Everything bad about Hawaii’s politics is not corruption and corruption is not the source of everything bad.

Corruption is about fraud and dishonesty by those in high places. Legislators taking bribes is a prime example. There is a moral dimension to it but mainly it’s about illegality because when you come right down to it, corruption is a legal term.

In any case, we know what to do. Root ‘em out and hang ‘em high.

After the new Hawaii State Hospital was finished it remained vacant for many months and has only recently been accepting new patients. (Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2021)

No Inventory Of Incompetence

Incompetence is different. Incompetence is about ineptitude — a lack of skill, not getting the job done or being ineffective or clumsy. Incompetence is not really a legal issue.

It is certainly possible that a corrupt politician can be competent, but let’s leave that for now. Just keep in mind that the class clown was not likely the same person as the kid who stole your lunch.

What’s more relevant is that someone can be clean as a whistle and still be incompetent.

I am drawing from a long list.

Gov. David Ige did not fail to deal with TMT because of corruption. Prison officials didn’t lose the medical records of 10,000 inmates because someone paid them off. They lost the records because no one had ever downloaded the necessary software updates.

The new state hospital didn’t remain unused because filthy lucre changed hands. The stadium has had a tragicomic history from its beginning to the Never Never Land stage it’s in now. Not really corruption.

Bribery was a serious problem for Honolulu’s Department of Permitting and Planning but so are the agency’s severe understaffing and cumbersome procedures.

And rail? Follow the money all you want, but sleaze does not explain why the tracks misaligned, why it took forever to figure out the yet unconstructed route along Dillingham Boulevard and the pokiness of transit-oriented development along the rail route.

The standards commission has given us a list of changes. The list has gotten traction. The public can easily imagine how the reforms should work: investigate, arrest, incarcerate and punishing perps for bad deeds. It’s easy to visualize the bad dudes.

As for incompetence, there is no such list and no such traction. It’s harder for the public to visualize how you deal with incompetence. Government reform commission reports generally end up gathering dust in the far corners of the Legislative Reference Bureau Library.

Transparency is an important part of the commission’s reforms. They give the public valuable information about the relationship between lobbyists and legislators, for instance. They try to make it easier to follow the money.

Good but limited. Transparency does not necessarily increase competence. Obtaining more public knowledge is a far cry from getting better, getting more efficient, competent and creating fair policy. Having more knowledge is far from guarantor of change.

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Only A Small Part Of The Problem

The corruption reform focus is on limiting the flow and influence of illegal money — stopping the insidious link between those big-time inside players (developers, engineering firms, and the like) and the Legislature.

That’s just a small part of the problem. The larger problem is the influence of perfectly legal money that would still stay perfectly legal despite the reforms.

It involves the disproportionate influence of little players.

Only a miniscule fraction of Americans donates to political campaigns. Many are just small givers. Research shows that legislators are far more attentive to this group than to the vast majority of people who give nothing.

Perfectly legal, sure. Not something that the corruption fight here is likely to touch because someone who wants to legally give a hundred bucks to a campaign. That’s not only legal, it’s also desirable.

But as political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens argue “even (that) perfectly legal money corrupts the most fundamental principle of democracy, the principle of political equality.”

That’s a much broader issue than the commission, or anyone else here for that matter, wants to tackle.

Let’s go ahead and fight corruption. At the same time don’t let this concern overwhelm your attention or inflate your expectations.

Guys taking money in a car is a big fat target. It’s low hanging fruit. The kinds of changes needed to make government more competent are harder and less obvious fruit hanging way up there.

Good government is about clean government. But it’s also about government that knows how to do things right and does the things it promises.

Moral crusades are good, but they can give you a devil of a time.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Want To Make The Legislature Better? Show Up And Push Back

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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)

Incompetence runs RAMPANT in the legislature. I'm not saying they're all bad people, many are perfectly good people who just don't know what they're doing, don't understand the bills they're reading, don't ask questions of parties that have the content knowledge, and definitely don't do research but instead operate off their personal opinions and feelings about topics. It is PAINFUL to watch and a huge reason why it takes SO long to get anything done here, and even then it's generally not done right, certainly not on budget, and never without controversy. Everybody is afraid of offending legislators... they're people, they serve the people of Hawaii. I don't care if they get offended at being called out. If nobody says anything, no change will occur. How about a new anonymous, but fact checked, column relating actions, words, and deeds of legislators, as well as legislative committee actions, words, and deeds. Anonymous so no individual has to fear reprisal by legislators, but we still hold legislator accountable for the work they are paid to do.

Help.Hawaii · 7 months ago

Incompetence is insidious. It takes many forms. Those who hide within their bureaucracies, taking advantage of the mazes they often provide and who also feel unaccountable to the public they serve, are foremost on my mind today.Thank you, Neal Milner, for the opinion. I couldn't agree more. Incompetence must be exposed by citizens who see it and with help from the media to raise awareness. Creating accessible ways for citizens to expose incompetence is important. Exposing incompetence is not jazzy for the media but if they knew how much citizens actually care about this issue, they would change their viewpoint and devote more resources to reporting on it. Civil Beat the great exception here.State/county governments and all their staff must be reminded often they're in a service industry, serving their neighbors - not biding time, complacent with valuable employment benefits and waiting on retirement - but inspired, knowing they each actually provide hugely meaningful services every day, from those who re-stripe the roads and manage traffic detours to those unseen who keep things moving across the board. Else, they must know we all have eyes on them at all times.

aloha4thekamaaina · 7 months ago

Corruption and incompetence are not mutually exclusive. In my experience it's the rule rather than the exception.

Brandon · 7 months ago

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