Nudging Hawaii Government Toward Reform

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BY LOWELL L. KALAPA – The major Honolulu daily’s recent headlines and article describing the challenges state government is facing in delivering services was titled “Government Takes Chisel to Services.” The premise: Budget cuts reduce the numbers on the public payroll while the work continues to mount because there are less hands to do the work.

The long and short of the story is that as a result of tepid revenue growth – or non growth as the case may be – hiring freezes have been imposed so positions go unfilled as public employees retire or move on to other jobs.  Compound that attrition with the now infamous “furlough Fridays,” and one can just imagine the back load of work that faces state workers as they return from the “three day weekends.”


But does this have to be?  How will lawmakers find the balance between downsizing state government while providing the level of services needed by the public that state workers serve?  Obviously, the state government of the future will look very different if lawmakers and administrators are willing to make the changes necessary to meet the needs of the future.  And that is the operative word here, “change.”

For those who work in government or have worked in government, change is hard to make.  Change, be it in the public sector or private sector, is difficult to attain because it means doing things differently, having to learn a new way to do the same job better.  In fact, folks have written tomes about change management be it in the private sector or the public sector, in management or for the on-the-line workforce.  Probably the best known of the contemporary works is “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson.

However, unlike the private sector, the public bureaucracy is faced with the dual challenge of a civil service system where everything is by the “book” and covered by the collective bargaining system where nearly every condition of the workplace has to be negotiated.  Observers joke about the “not in my job description” response of people on the line, but whether real or perceived, that is often what challenges change.  Unwilling to do more than what is required of the position often stifles ambitions and work ethic as doing more than what is required means that one is making another worker look bad.  So workers tend to be complacent and just do what is required, after all, they don’t want to make their fellow employee look bad.

Then there is the challenge of going up against the boss or challenging the status quo.  “Towing the party line” is much akin to the story of the emperor’s new clothes.  No one wants to embarrass the boss, so no one challenges the ideas or viewpoints of the boss.  While this may be the “safe” play in the public workplace, it insures that no new ideas are put on the table or different perspectives discussed.  Challenging the “party line” will surely get the employee in trouble because it is going against the conventional (boss’) opinion.

However, this can and does lead to mediocrity and a perpetuation of practices that stay contained within the “box.”  If government is to be responsive to the needs of the public it serves, then it constantly has to challenge the way it delivers services in the most cost-efficient manner.  That means challenging the status quo, constantly seeking a new and better way to deliver those services and asking questions of the system.  Again, civil service and collective bargaining hurdles often prevent this dynamic interaction from occurring.

Of course, it is not all the public employees’ fault that government seems to drift without direction and goals.  It will also take inspiring leadership on the part of those who have been given the task of directing their departments and divisions to seek the input and insights of those on the front line and be willing to make changes at the recommendation of those who know the people they serve.

It also means that those who have been tasked to lead must be willing to make decisions.  All too often we find those in positions of authority unwilling to make decisions because the decision they make may just be wrong.  However, as we learned many years ago, “not to decide, is to decide.”  Not making a decision is just as much a decision as it is to decide an issue.  Because decisions are not made or constantly deferred, no action is taken and those who the decision affects thrash about aimlessly because no direction is given.

So if there is to be any reformation of state government, then all involved must accept change and be willing to challenge the status quo and most of all be willing to move forward by making some of those tough decisions.