OHA is Becoming More Accountable in How It Gives Out Money

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Keliʻi Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

When I was first elected to the OHA Board back in 2016, one of my top concerns was the way the agency had been managing its grants. Millions of dollars were given away without adequate assurance that funds were awarded competitively by OHA and managed properly by the receiving organizations. And oftentimes, Trustees could influence the grant-awarding process to favor certain applicants.

In partnership with my fellow Trustees on the Board, we pushed for reforms to our grants process, supported government-sponsored and independent audits, adopted in-house policy changes, and worked to strengthen OHA with highly qualified leadership starting at the top with the CEO.

How effective were our reform efforts? Well, I am pleased to say that one of the first report cards has just arrived, and according to it, OHA is moving in the right direction! The report card is the State Auditor’s follow-up report on the 2018 Audit of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Competitive Grants (Report No. 18-08) which can be viewed online at files.hawaii.gov/auditor/Reports/2021/21-10.pdf. This report objectively measures how well OHA has implemented recommendations made by the State Auditor in its 2018 audit of OHA’s competitive grants.

In particular, the follow-up report confines its focus to OHA’s ʻAhahui Grants and Community Grants programs, which are both designed to support organizations serving the needs of Native Hawaiians.

ʻAhahui Grants are awarded through a competitive process and provide support to eligible organizations for hosting community events. This year, ʻAhahui grant awardees include Kūkulu Kumuhana O Anahola on Kauaʻi for their ʻĀina to ʻŌpū event, the Waiʻanae Economic Development Council for their Best of the Westside event, the Bishop Museum, Aloha Festivals, and others.

Community Grants are also awarded through a competitive process and provide support for programmatic services over a two-year period. Hawaiian Community Assets, for example, received a Community Grant to establish the Hawaiʻi Affordable Housing Fund and to provide financial counseling, individual development accounts and loans to rent or own homes. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement also received a Community Grant for a statewide program providing Native Hawaiians with emergency financial assistance, financial literacy education, and assistance with employment, education, healthcare, housing and social services.

The Auditor’s 2021 report shows that OHA has successfully implemented 10 of 11 recommendations made in 2018, and partially implemented an eleventh recommendation. The Auditor notes that the partial implementation of one recommendation is not a negative evaluation; it’s just too early to collect all the data for a full review.

This is good news for OHA and a reason to commend the Board of Trustees and OHA Administration, led by CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey!

That said, we cannot rest on our laurels yet, for there is more work to be done. There is always room for improvement when it comes to responsible management of beneficiary trust funds. And lest we forget, OHA needs to follow through on the numerous “red flags” highlighted in the independent review by Clifton Larson Allen (CLA) as I discussed in my August Ka Wai Ola column. You can view it online at kawaiola.news/trustees/too-many-red-flags-to-ignore-oha-must-follow-up-on-the-cla-report/.

All in all, it looks like we are moving into a new day at OHA, where financial transparency and accountability are practiced at a high level. This will definitely contribute to the accomplishment of OHA’s mission to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. Mahalo to all beneficiaries, OHA staff, and OHA Trustees responsible for this good news.