This past week, we learned that the man responsible for the bogus Hawaii missile alert last month had kept his job for a decade, even though he had a history of performance problems and had been “a source of concern,” according to a Federal Communications Commission report. His fellow employees had expressed discomfort about his work, and the FCC said that he was “unable to comprehend the situation at hand and has confused real life events and drills on at least two separate occasions.” Although the emergency management worker, who remains unnamed, was a union member, he could’ve been fired at will. “Why, then,” Gizmodo understandably wondered, “was the employee in a position to send a false missile alarm to a couple of million people?”
As we say in the islands, e komo mai (welcome) to Hawaii.
I worked as a Hawaii state employee for a short time, serving as spokesman for a division of the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and then spent more than seven years dealing with the government as a journalist. Anyone who knows how Honolulu functions can’t have been surprised by the FCC’s revelations. The sad part is that the worker’s ineptitude and the chaos he caused have exposed to the world old, ugly tropes about Hawaiian accountability and competence that residents would love nothing more than to shake off. “How many more non effective employees are on the job here in Hawaii?” asked a local on Hawaii News Now’s Facebook page.
There’s a strong assumption in the islands that once you enter the state government system, you’re set for life. There are great retirement benefits, union protections, and the ability to move up or laterally across departments. (According to figures drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hawaii has the second-highest rate of union membership — more than 20 percent — after New York.) The prevailing notion is: You don’t have to work that hard.
And there is often no cost for screwing up. Vern Miyagi, the emergency management chief who resigned in the wake of the FCC report Tuesday, had made his reluctance to fire the alert author clear: “You’ve got to know this guy feels bad, right? I mean, he’s not doing this on purpose.”
I recall a Honolulu police officer who was fired in 2012 for falsifying reports and lying to investigators, then later hired by the state of Hawaii as a law enforcement officer, only to be convicted last year of raping a teenage girl while in uniform. Even the police chief in Honolulu held onto his job for more than a year while the feds investigated him for using police resources to frame someone over a personal vendetta.
Hawaii is a small community with a strong local whisper network (coconut wireless, as it is called), but the community there dislikes shaming. Despite the fact that his salary is paid by tax dollars and that he led hundreds of thousands of people to believe they would imminently die, the man behind the phone alert remains unaccountable to the public. Locals seem nonplussed. “Forgive, move on,” said one Hawaii News Now commenter, a familiar sentiment on Internet coverage of the event. “It old news. We all make mistakes.”
Another problem is that state workers who do want to buckle down are saddled with obsolete tech. Gov. David Ige (D) said after the alert debacle that he didn’t know his Twitter password (and apparently neither did his communications staff) — a perfect encapsulation of how behind the state is technologically. It’s a government that pays its employees via a financial accounting platform that’s 40 years old, strung together with parts bought on eBay.
Hawaii desperately wants to diversify its economy beyond tourism and U.S. military spending. Plantation agriculture kept the state afloat for the past century but is now a dead industry. The state wants to “develop foundations for an innovation economy and nurturing emerging industries,” according to a government strategy plan. But it’s hard to see how this episode inspires any confidence among investors and start-up wunderkinds.
When I worked at the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs in 2013, I remember opening a PDF attachment and closing my eyes for a few minutes while my outdated, state-issued computer opened the file, which was only a few megabytes large. It was a great time to rest before spending two hours at lunch with your colleagues — a normal occurrence for state employees.
Culturally, Hawaii tends to reward seniority, not competence. Careers often advance only when incumbent workers resign or die. In 2006, after Time magazine called Hawaii’s octogenarian Sen. Dan Akaka one of the five worst U.S. senators — for sponsoring only minor resolutions and bills that died in committee — then-Rep. Ed Case decided to challenge him in the Democratic primary. A Honolulu Star-Bulletin piece surveyed the widespread reaction to this brazen maneuver. Sample comment: “Wait his turn! Has he no respect for his elders?” Case lost by 10 percentage points.
That’s a sentiment young people (and apparently 54-year-old members of Congress) hear often in Hawaii. The author of that 2006 newspaper column rued how “local values” insist on deference and conformity. “If I were first to speak, I’d be called ‘pushy.’ If my answer were too outrageous, I might be teased,” she wrote, “so best to keep silent.”
I often heard residents of my old state parrot a Japanese saying: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. And people who want reform, or just want to try something new, hear a common refrain in Hawaii’s private and public sectors: “That’s not how things have been done before.” Play your role, and you’ll be rewarded when you’re good and old.
That attitude has consequences. The FCC report shows it was no secret that the missile alert’s author was inept. Yet he somehow landed the critical job of telling an entire state whether its people could die in a nuclear blast. While 10 years passed, his supervisors did nothing to remove him from a job they knew he was unqualified for, nor did they implement procedures for what to do if someone accidentally sent a missile alert. It took a national embarrassment to dislodge him from his job.
A nuclear reality is a new one for Hawaii residents to face, and one they are clearly unprepared for. The way things were done before didn’t suffice, and it appears that nobody who could change it stuck out and risked getting hammered down.
In 2018, speed and accountability are life-and-death matters, and Hawaii isn’t ready. For 10 years and more, it tolerated incompetence. It can’t afford another 10 years of inaction. This is not a drill.