Chad Blair: This Little Known Office Hears Citizen Gripes About Government - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Hawaii State Ombudsman Robin Matsunaga has served in the position since 1998.

A death certificate with an erroneous social security number. An inmate who said an adult corrections officer confiscated his cane. A years-long backlog of labor board cases still pending.

Those are three cases that were handled by the state’s Office of the Ombudsman in fiscal year 2018-2019. They come from a total of 3,355 that year, the last full year before Covid-19 disrupted not only the ombudsman’s work but the entire world’s.

The ombudsman’s office was created by the Hawaii Legislature way back in 1969, but its work rarely makes the news. People are likely more familiar with the state’s long-term care ombudsman, who is part of the Hawaii Executive Office of Aging within the Department of Health. Civil Beat has reported extensively on that office and the lax oversight of elderly care.

But the state ombudsman, an independent office that investigates complaints against state and county agencies and employees, has a broader scope than just the DOH. And it plays a critical role in helping citizens communicate directly with their government on issues that concern them.

The death certificate complaint mentioned above was a health department matter, but the ACO incident involved the Department of Public Safety while the backlog was within the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

A comparison of inquiries received in fiscal year 2017-2018 and fiscal year 2018-2019 by the Hawaii ombudsman.

Other departments flagged that year for complaints or inquiries included the Department of the Attorney General (bar owners made responsible for smoking ban enforcement), the Department of Transportation (inaccurate mileage markers), the University of Hawaii (noisy construction activity) and the Office of the Governor (violation of civil rights).

The ombudsman has the power to obtain information for its investigations and to recommend corrective action of a complaint if it turns out to be legit. But it does not provide legal advice and it does not serve as an advocative for the aggrieved.

Rather, it seeks to work with agencies to resolve the problems raised by the complainers. That involves comparing an agency’s administrative actions with what is required by law.

Of those three cases mentioned earlier, the social security number was corrected, the cane was returned to the inmate and a staff attorney position was funded to help with the DLIR backlog.

Anonymous complaints are accepted, too, as long as they are not specific to an individual but impact the general public  — like concerns about potholes or parks not being properly maintained. 

A Nordic Invention

“Ombudsman” is a Swedish word that translates as agent, representative or advocate. It was first established in Sweden in 1809 by the country’s parliament “to control the activities of, and prevent abuses by, public officials,” according to the 2020 recent report from the Hawaii ombudsman.

In addition to Hawaii, four states — Alaska, Arizona, Iowa and Nebraska — have ombudsmen. Many local governments including King County, Washington, and Dayton-Montgomery County, Ohio, also have ombudsman offices to address citizen complaints.

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Hawaii’s ombudsman actually has its own logo. Designed by the late Sam Kim, a local artist, it is in the shape of an “O” that has been broken “to give the idea of avenues of communication both in and out as well as access to the centers of power. The logo can also be seen as a rolling sun, representing enlightenment and the mobility and hope of life.” (See the image at top right.)

By law, however, there are things the Hawaii ombudsman cannot do: investigate complaints about the governor and lieutenant governor and their staff, the Legislature and its staff, the judiciary and its staff, county mayors and councils, the federal government, a multi-state governmental entity or a nongovernmental entity.

“We also cannot investigate public employee grievances covered by collective bargaining agreements,” as the ombudsman’s website explains.

The office has been led by Robin Matsunaga since 1998, when he was confirmed by a joint House-Senate session. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Hawaii Manoa and previously served as chief of staff in the House, as a committee clerk for the House Finance Committee and as an analyst for the state Department of Transportation.

Robin Matsunaga is the state ombudsman. (Screenshot)

Matsunaga says that many laws are vague, which gives agencies discretion on interpretation and application. But citizens don’t always know where to go to get support when they have questions or concerns.

“Because it’s humans that are providing it, errors can be made,” he said. “I think most of them are not intentional, but they just make errors. And then they try to go to the agencies. A lot of times they can’t get in touch with them or they feel like they’re not getting a fair response because it’s an agency, right?”

The ombudsman serves as a bridge between the citizen and the agency.

“Having an office like mine that’s independent and can impartially look at these complaints to see, did the agency act lawfully? And even if it was lawful, were they still fair and reasonable given the circumstances?” said Matsunaga. “I think at least it provides the kind of leveling of the playing field for citizens against big bureaucracy and government.”

A majority of the jurisdictional complaints — almost 66% — from the 2020 report are about the Department of Public Safety. Matsunaga says that that is historically the trend but that there have also been more complaints or information inquiries logged regarding DOH and the Department of Human Services as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It seems to be slowly returning to pre-Covid years where the types and the numbers of the complaints are kind of getting back to that level,” said Matsunaga, who addresses the pandemic’s ongoing impact in his office’s most recent annual report. “We’re still at least 15% to 20% higher case loads than we were prior to Covid. And I think it’s because some of the agencies still have not returned to full levels of staffing to provide the services that the public is seeking.”

An excerpt from the ombudsman’s 2020 annual report showing some of complaints made about the Department of Public Safety.

Covid, said Matsunaga, changed how government provides services as well as people’s expectations. The ombudsman’s office, which is located at 465 South King St., is still not accepting visitors. But it can be reached by phone, fax and email.

By law the ombudsman is limited to serving three six-year terms, meaning that Matsunaga is currently a holdover appointment. It’s up to House and Senate leadership as to whether they want to select someone new.

“State law sets a clear 18-year term limit for the ombudsman, and now that that has passed the Legislature should take steps to appoint a new ombudsman,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki.

Senate President Ron Kouchi was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Not being able to file a complaint against the legislature, governor or mayor takes all the fun out of it and kind of makes the office pretty worthless. I guess you could still file complaints against union officials, or big government contractors that get fat off our tax dollars, but I doubt those would get any traction from Matsunaga and his staff. They know who the power brokers in the state are and they don't want to stir the hornets nest. And lastly, this does sound like one of those endless government positions that never end. Where are the checks and balances here? Matsunaga gets to ride off into the sunset, without review. Sweet retirement.

wailani1961 · 6 months ago

Knowing that one guy has been in the same position for 25 years, I'm not surprised some complaints don't get any traction. Sounds like another status quo local government entity, though I have nothing against the guy. Someone smart needs to come up with a plan to rotate government workers before they get too comfy. But rotation has its own potential productivity problem. Any thoughts all you akamai commenters?

luckyd · 6 months ago

Contacting this office was a bust. A waste of effort. The assigned agent does not know what is unconstitutional. He took no time to investigate the real issue and dismissed my complaint with illogical reasoning. Very unprofessional.

daniwitz · 6 months ago

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