How to Restore OHA’s Credibility

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Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

Credibility (noun) – the quality of being trusted and believed in.

The way OHA has responded to recent events has affected its credibility in the eyes of Hawaiʻi’s lawmakers and OHA’s own Hawaiian beneficiaries, and not in a good way.

For example, when the long-awaited results of the independent audit for fraud, waste, and abuse were presented in December 2019, OHA’s official statement to the media failed to fully acknowledge the serious indicators of potential fraud, waste and abuse. Instead, it characterized the audit as affirmation that OHA is moving in the right direction. In reality, the audit raised significant questions about OHAʻs fiscal governance. The auditors pointed out numerous examples of potentially fraudulent, wasteful and abusive expenditures and made recommendations for corrective action.

More recently, the State Office of the Auditor suspended its own audit, which was mandated by the legislature through Act 37, due to OHA’s unwillingness to give the Auditor unredacted copies of executive session meeting minutes. OHA claimed attorney-client privilege over certain portions of the executive session meeting minutes requested by the Auditor and redacted those portions. Upon learning of the Auditor’s decision to suspend the Act 37 audit, OHA released an official statement on December 30, 2019 accusing the Auditor of not doing his job and attempting to “play politics.” Unfortunately, the suspended audit may result in the state legislature continuing to withhold critical funding to OHA.

Responses such as these have damaged OHA’s credibility in the eyes of the public and of the legislature. Credibility continues to be an issue that OHA has been well aware of since at least 2015, when OHA commissioned a scientific survey to gauge public perception of the organization. The survey showed that among Hawaiian-serving institutions, OHA ranked least favorable. According to those surveyed, this was due to a perception that the organization and its management “are ineffective, poorly managed, or corrupt” and “do not help or represent the Hawaiian people effectively.”

A classic rule of good public relations holds that in the face of a crisis, (or growing outside scrutiny and criticism, as is the case with OHA) the best thing for an organization to do is to admit, apologize, be accountable, and act. The worst thing to do is to deny, minimize, accuse and blame others. Embracing this classic rule would be a good first step for OHA to take as it seeks to restore its credibility.

Doing so will also signal to OHA’s beneficiaries that it is truly moving in the right direction and will open hearts and minds to acknowledge the great good that OHA indeed does. And with the 2020 legislative session underway, it is more important than ever for OHA to restore its credibility with lawmakers as well. Both beneficiaries and legislators know from numerous State audits and OHA’s recent independent audit that there are serious issues OHA must deal with. Candid and full acknowledgement of that fact, paired with meaningful commitment to take corrective action, will go far in helping OHA to rebuild its public credibility.


Trustee Akina welcomes your comments and feedback on this column, and past columns, at TrusteeAkina@oha.org.