Is the Hawaii government effective? It’s difficult to say

Government performance metrics don’t always address issues that people want to see addressed.

Are we growing more of our own food? Is the state reducing the number of applicants on the Hawaii home country waitlist? Are we rehabilitating more inmates and reducing prison overcrowding?

It’s hard to find measurable, objective data that would adequately answer all of these questions and the dozens of other questions confronting Hawaii policymakers, even though government agencies are required to submit mandatory variance reports each year about their “measures of effectiveness.” β€œto report.

Senator Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, wants state departments to better track their performance metrics and align them with their budgetary needs.

Hawaii State Capitol Building on the last day of the legislative session.
Legislators are considering a number of bills designed to help government agencies report on their performance goals. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

He has introduced several bills – summarized in Senate Bill 291 – that passed their first hearings on Tuesday. SB 291 requires the governor to ensure that the measurements and targets included in various budget-related reports reflect the current responsibilities of government agencies, anticipate future needs, and are consistent with the overall budget.

“Right now when you look at the variance reports, the budget doesn’t really reflect the goals that they have,” Dela Cruz said.

Take the Ministry of Public Security for example. DPS tracks metrics such as the percentage of its inmate population enrolled in academic or vocational programs across the state correctional system.

But there are no details on participation in these types of programs for each correctional facility. Most only track the average number of inmates, the number of escapes, and the number of releases.

Other facilities include the number of inmates participating in vacation or residential programs. But there is no record in the deviation reports of how many inmates actually complete these types of programs.

“This is in contrast to all the problems we’re talking about: too many prisoners per cell, have they reduced that? Are they able to do that?” said Dela Cruz. “We’re trying to address all of that, but there aren’t any specific goals for them.”

The State Department of Hawaiian Home Lands tracks metrics such as the percentage of proposed lots that will actually be built on, the number of loans approved, and the number of terminated leases. But there is no metric that clearly shows how many applicants have been removed from DHHL’s waiting list, which has grown to more than 29,000.

The reports do not go into the details of ongoing departmental activities such as: B. DHHL’s progress in spending $600 million to develop more than 2,700 properties. It’s now back with an additional budget request of $30 million each of the next two years, which has drawn criticism from state lawmakers like Dela Cruz, who want more details on the department’s spending plans.

Maui Community Correctional Center.
DPS tracks system-wide metrics on inmate participation in academic or vocational programs, but does not break them down by facility. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Gov. Josh Green said he supports legislation like the one Dela Cruz is proposing.

“I strongly support the intent of these measures to improve fiscal metrics and transparency,” the governor said in a written statement.

At a hearing Tuesday on SB 291 and related measures, Budget and Finance Director Luis Salaveria said his department doesn’t think the bills are necessary.

“But we are willing to work with the legislature to develop a format that we believe would be helpful for everyone,” he said.

SB 291 would not be the first attempt to examine government spending and determine whether the government is meeting all of its benchmarks.

In 2019, Lt. gov. Sylvia Luke, who was chair of the House Finance Committee at the time, instituted a zero-based budgeting policy that required departments to justify every dollar demanded of them and essentially tied their funding to key performance indicators. Critics of these performance metrics included in variance reports have pointed out that they are largely self-reported and leave glaring gaps.

“We’re trying to address all of that, but there aren’t any specific goals for them.” β€” Senator Donovan Dela Cruz

Tom Yamachika, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, said most departments would have done well to track their own performance metrics. However, he has another problem with the deviation reports.

“Their metrics are reasonable, but the problem is some just blow it off,” he said.

He points to agencies such as the airport division in the State Department of Transportation.

For several years, the division hasn’t tracked some of its key performance indicators, including mean times between landing and arriving at the gate and mean times between boarding and takeoff.

It also doesn’t track operating costs per square foot of airport space or the number of accidents that occur at airports each year. In its 2014 report, the DOT found that many performance measurements were out of date and had not been tracked since.

Other departments stop collecting data because they lose funding for certain programs. In its most recent discrepancy report, the state Department of Health had no data for live births between 2021 and 2022 because it no longer had a grant to help pay for that data.

Other programs are new and have no data yet. One is the School Facilities Authority, tasked with spending $200 million over the next 18 months to build preschool classrooms. It is asking the Legislature for more staff this year to help it achieve that goal.

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Some agencies, such as the State Airports Division, have stopped reporting data on their key performance indicators. Others are struggling to keep up or have found that old metrics are now out of date. (Cory Lum/Civil Strike/2022)

Government agencies have to produce countless reports and other legally required documents every year. In addition, after each session, the Legislature solicits dozens of other reports on a variety of subjects.

Dela Cruz has another bill scheduled for a hearing Tuesday to ensure departments get all of their reports in a timely manner.

“It doesn’t do us any good if they send us their information by May,” Dela Cruz said, if the session is already over.

Yamachika said it really is up to lawmakers to ensure these new reports and key performance indicators don’t just become paper exercises that departments can easily go through or blow off. But it could also mean additional strain on already overburdened departments.

Green said more detailed reports would require additional staff time, but the state is already working on that.

The Office of the Public Defender is one of the agencies that didn’t have data on its performance metrics this year, which includes cases for its attorneys. However, its report states that the Office is reassessing what its key performance indicators should look like.

“It’s hard for us to assess effectiveness, we don’t do it on wins and losses, it doesn’t matter,” said public defender James Tabe. “As long as we are able to effectively represent anyone who is sent to us.”

The office is still overloaded with cases from the coronavirus pandemic, which is piling up with new cases every day. Tabe said anecdotally that his lawyers feel “they’re under water right now.” He said he hasn’t had much time to think about what the Office’s new effectiveness measures should be.

“It’s really just to keep things afloat,” Tabe said of his work. “So that we can be effective instead of running the bureaucracy of measurement.”