Danny De Gracia: Political Sunshine Can Put An End To Backroom Deals And Good Old Boys - Honolulu Civil Beat

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!

Donate

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!

Donate


About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.


Sometimes only an outside perspective can purge an entrenched culture of corruption.

How does one go about overhauling a government to increase transparency and ethical behavior? Is it even possible to take a deeply troubled state that has been plagued by decades of scandals, incompetence and secrecy and turn it around? Can a state of backroom deals and good old boys become a state of sunshine openness and good government?

If you’re wondering if any of these things can be accomplished in Hawaii, the answer is yes!

As a political scientist, I like to look to historical precedent for both inspiration and understanding of what’s possible in government. Let’s rewind to 1993, just two years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The former Soviet republic of Estonia found itself at a cultural and political crossroads. It wanted to move forward toward Western-style meritocracy and professionalism in government, but its people just didn’t have any experience after decades of communist rule.

Alcoholism, brutal hazing, corruption and nepotism were rife in Estonia at the time, being a feature, not a bug, of oligarchical Soviet-style government.

To break from the past, then-president of Estonia Lennart Georg Meri asked retired U.S. Army Col. Aleksander Einseln, who had been born in Estonia prior to immigrating to America, to come back to his country of birth and help reform the government as an adviser. 

The government of Estonia turned to an outsider to help purge the remnants of the old regime. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first thing that Einseln did was to go about destroying every painting, statue or artifact from the Soviet era to completely purge the culture and legacy of the past. The second thing he did was fire all or most of the military leadership, replacing them with new leaders who had new values. The third thing Einseln did was personally train new military recruits and junior ranking officers, instilling in them the values of honor, respect and professionalism.

In a very short time, Estonia saw incredible reforms because of Einseln and even became a member of NATO in 2004. The lesson to be learned? Bring in an outside perspective, change a government’s values and train people from the ground up, and you can have a paradigm shift in a short time.

Surely if a former Soviet republic like Estonia could be reformed in less than a decade, Hawaii – with its traditions of aloha – should be no sweat to reform.

Right? (I can already sense some people gritting their teeth in embarrassment and shrinking in their seats.)

Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, though. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has committed to making his time in office about greater ethics and transparency in government. He has, admirably, sought to clean up government and acknowledged that we have problems that need to be dealt with.

This is a good place to start.

  • A Special Commentary Project

But as we see from the example of Estonia, it takes more than just decrees and laws to reform a government.

It takes a hands-on, intimate commitment to get down in the dirt and personally oversee change.

The mistake many people make is to think, “The best way to stop corruption is to make it illegal to do things, or to increase the penalty for breaking the law.” Let me tell you something; no one committing unethical or corrupt actions in government does so because they think to themselves that the penalty is too light.

People do bad things not because there are insufficient penalties, but because they have insufficient character and personal values to do the right thing in the first place. And when too many people think like that, an entire government develops a culture of corruption.

Just like Einseln, Green needs to purge the culture of corruption by firing careerists within the executive branch who have been there too long and have either been asleep at the wheel or cutting corners for too long when it comes to good government.

Get rid of the old guard and bring in a new perspective, and you’ll have a fresh government.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, March 2, 2023, at the governor's office. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Gov. Josh Green says he wants to rebuild faith in government so corruption becomes a thing of the past. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Green also needs to make sure the people he appoints to oversee departments show leadership by example. For too long, we appoint people who are transitory appointees who are here one moment and gone the next, who during their time in office do nothing but the absolute minimum. 

What we need are committed people who hit the ground running and want to get involved in the nuts-and-bolts of hiring, mentorship and continuous improvement. When a department has leaders who lead from the front, that has a powerful effect that goads everyone to be better – or move out. 

Laws by themselves are meaningless and powerless to bring about change. What changes a government is people willing to get their hands dirty while cleaning up a contaminated system. Excellence isn’t saying, “don’t do this, or else.” Excellence is demonstrating, “this is the way, this is how you do it, and this is what we will do it together.”

We can have a paradigm shift of great governance in Hawaii, but we have to put our skin in the game and be present as part of the reform process. We can’t rule by mandate, or rule from behind a desk. We have to lead on the ground; we have to be persistent in overcoming entrenched traditions and we have to sometimes bring in outsiders to purge insider culture.

Can we reform Hawaii? Absolutely. Gov. Green, if you’re serious about reform, learn from the example of Estonia. It doesn’t take long to change a government when you bring in people who are good at government.


Read this next:

The Sunshine Blog: Reform Bills Head To Gov, And Carrots And Sticks For Counties


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.


Latest Comments (0)

There are some systematic issues that need to be addressed.Currently the fox are guarding the chicken coop, so some changes in the system needs to happen for better checks and balances. We have already seen the system cannot be changed from within - sunshine bills are killed by one person heading the committee etc.Term Limits.Public referendum procedures established.Full time legislators with no other job - prevents conflict of interest.Public financed campaigns - with cap on no large private campaign donations so politicians cannot be bought and put in office in this way.Anyone want to add to the list?

Chris · 8 months ago

I don't know, a 5-year prison term for an Ethics violation certainly would deter the vast amount of politicians, corrupt or not.

Scotty_Poppins · 8 months ago

Embracing ethical standards of conduct and letting the sun shine in starts first with the leader-in-charge. This article makes assumptions that the executive projects expectations but it does not expressly include the executive himself/herself as written.As other responders have noted, the Governor has spent time in political office working at the Legislature. There is always room to improve and strengthen a commitment to ethics and away from the quid pro quo, behind closed doors expectations. Trading favors is business as usual and plenty has been written about it here locally.Change must start at the top and accountability must be built into the system.

Jessie_3333 · 8 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.