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Govs. Abercrombie and Waihee on Leadership

On Tuesday, September 8, the Tax Foundation was pleased to welcome former Govs. Neil Abercrombie and John Waihee III to the first ever virtual annual meeting of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

During the Zoom meeting, we had a free-flowing discussion of topics, sometimes tightly connected with taxation and public finance, and sometimes loosely connected.  Many of the twists and turns in the discussion were driven by audience questions.

One of the central themes of the discussion was the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from it.  The governors zeroed in on two principal drivers of our government’s response, namely structural capability and leadership.

Structural capability reflects the ability of government to respond to new things.  Gov. Abercrombie mentioned that during his term in office he was worried about the State’s information technology infrastructure and tried to implement significant changes to it.  Changes did happen, but vestiges of older technologies stubbornly remained – such as the two fax machines that the Department of Health’s contact tracing program has relied on to receive reports of new and suspected cases.  Structural capability also reflects the ability of people in it to respond with creative, out-of-the-box thinking, such as the COVID-19 testing effort in the Interstate H‑3 Harano Tunnels spearheaded by Deputy Director of Transportation Ed Sniffen.

Leadership, loosely defined as the ability to motivate people to do what you want when they might not be willing to do it without the motivation, is an ability (or lack thereof) often cited in describing a government’s response.  Gov. Waihee identified three essential aspects of leadership.  First, there must be no corruption.  If the public thinks you as a leader are doing something wrong, they will have less motivation to follow you.  Second, there needs to be openness, and third, there needs to be clear communication to the constituency of what and why.  The electorate doesn’t like to be told to shut up and do what they’re told.  They need to have some sense of not only the desired behavior but also the reasons behind it before they are able to buy in.

The openness aspect seemed to be lacking at least in our government’s initial response to the crisis.  When the emergency proclamations giving us the stay-at-home orders and quarantining came down from the fifth floor of the Capitol, the Governor suspended in its entirety the state’s chapter of mandating public access to government records, and suspended a large part of the state’s open meetings laws.  The Governor walked back the suspensions a little at the beginning of May, but it seems that the tone and direction of the executive branch already had been set.  Not even the Legislative Auditor was able to obtain cooperation with its information gathering efforts at the Department of Health or the Department of Education.  When it is that tough for a government agency to get answers, woe be to the press and the public who are trying to find essential information.

When government is challenged in structural capability or leadership, Gov. Abercrombie suggested that a possible solution is to fill in the gap with a public-private partnership, such as is being tried with the Aloha Stadium grounds.  Of course, safeguards need to be in place to be sure that the interests of the public are protected, but many situations present opportunities for win-win situations.

Our thanks once again go out to former Govs. Abercrombie and Waihee for such a thought-provoking discussion!

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