OHA Needs a Clearer Vision!

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

In 2015, a scientific research poll commissioned by OHA showed OHA had the lowest favorability rating among Hawaiian-serving institutions. Since then, state audits and public criticism have reinforced that perception. A former Hawai‘i governor is even on record calling for the abolishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, as are others looking to a state Constitutional Convention as the opportunity to do so.

With so many needs of the Hawaiian people unmet, I strongly disagree that it’s time to abolish OHA. Instead, we need to focus OHA on a clearer vision.

OHA’s mandate of “the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians” is noble, but contains no measurable goals. How do we measure whether OHA itself is bringing about significant betterment?

OHA is now updating its strategic plan for implementation in 2020. While the strategic plan is well-intentioned, it isn’t tied to a performance accountability system. I’ve advocated for OHA to adopt a best practice used by other government agencies, known as a Planning, Programming and Budgeting System or PPBS. Such a system would allow Trustees to see the impact of funds dedicated to accomplishing specific goals. It would force us to define what outcomes every trust dollar is supposed to bring about, and to evaluate our spending against those outcomes.

Here are areas in which OHA could establish measurable goals as part of a more focused vision.

Waianae Coast economic development

The largest population of native Hawaiians on Earth is on the Waianae coast of Oahu. Hawaiian-led transformation of this coastline into a culturally sensitive economic growth region could turn Hawaiian beneficiaries into benefactors, and could serve as a model for native communities across the world. Agriculture, aquaculture, technology, ocean industries, and culturally sensitive tourism hold enormous potential for economic development on the Waianae Coast. OHA can and should lead the way.

Eliminate the Hawaiian Homes waitlist

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands’ land assets could house every person on the waitlist, and still generate significant income for native Hawaiians. The fundamental difference between DHHL and Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, now the world’s wealthiest educational endowment, is the latter’s ability to see the value of land over time as a financial growth asset.

While there are federal and state jurisdictional issues to contend with, OHA is the constitutionally appointed entity to provide leadership on Hawaiian matters and OHA is already involved in some measure of financing DHHL. OHA should facilitate turning the Hawaiian Homelands into a self-sustaining source of revenue, adequate to provide housing for Hawaiians in need.

Turn Honolulu into a financial engine for Hawaiians

Currently, OHA sits atop two Honolulu real estate diamonds. The first is Kaka‘ako Makai, which boasts about 30 acres of prime waterfront real estate. The second property is in the Iwilei area, where OHA’s offices are housed. With the right development plans in place, these properties could have multiple structures suitable for residential, commercial, and mixed-use purposes. With entrepreneurial drive and strategic planning, these properties could generate perpetual income to meet the needs of the Hawaiian people.

These are just three areas in which better focus and strategic planning with measurable outcomes could transform the conditions of native Hawaiians. This is why I am adamant about making sure OHA is audited thoroughly and its internal policies revised. We must get on with the business of building wealth for the Hawaiian people. This is the pathway to alleviate homelessness, create affordable housing, and meet the need for better education, healthcare, and jobs. It’s at our fingertips. We simply need to focus OHA on a clearer vision.