In 2017, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) gave the Office of Hawaiian Affairs a failing grade of F for its online financial transparency (See “Following the Money 2017: Governing in the Shadows”). Why is this a serious problem? According to U.S. PIRG, transparency is essential for the proper functioning of government:
“Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.”
Even before the U.S. PIRG report, public confidence in OHA was starting to wane. In an independent 2015 survey conducted by SMS Research for OHA, OHA was ranked least favorable among Hawaiian serving institutions like Kamehameha Schools and DHHL. The top two reasons for the unfavorable rating given by those surveyed were that OHA management was ineffective, poorly managed or corrupt, and that OHA does not help or represent Hawaiian people effectively.
Some may see the U.S. PIRG report and SMS survey as unrelated. But when taken together, the report and survey indicate that OHA must improve its transparency.
Transparency, as it relates to public institutions like OHA, empowers members of the public by allowing easy access to information about how money is spent and decisions are made. Therefore, it is vital for organizations like OHA to hold transparency in high regard. Transparency ensures an even playing field when it comes to getting information.
Since becoming a trustee, I have observed areas where OHA needs improvement in transparency. For example, ad hoc committees and advisory committees established by the Board are not required to keep minutes of their meetings (although some may do so). As a result, major policy recommendations are sometimes made to the Board of Trustees without a reliable record of how those recommendations were arrived at.
Another example, cited in the U.S. PIRG report, notes that OHA does not provide the public with “a register of online checkbook-level spending.”
Recently, a proposal to establish a financial transparency website as part of OHA’s budgeting practice came before the Board. That measure would have required basic financial documents, including the OHA check register, to be posted online for beneficiaries and other stakeholders to review. While the Resource Management Committee did vote to approve the action, which focused primarily on how the OHA budget is presented to the Board, the provision establishing the financial transparency website was declined for further study.
One of the arguments put forth against the transparency website was that OHA’s financial information is already accessible, because it can be requested through the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA). My feeling is that having to file a UIPA request places an undue burden on ordinary citizens’ access to information that should be instantly available online.
So here is a prescription for making OHA more transparent and accountable: Any information that the public is entitled to anyway, through UIPA, should be posted online and immediately accessible. With full access to OHA’s financial information, any beneficiary or member of the public would see that OHA, for the most part, does tremendous good on behalf of the Native Hawaiian community. That would build credibility and confidence in the organization.
Like dutiful parents of a child, OHA’s beneficiaries must insist that OHA get a better grade for financial transparency on its next report card.
Trustee Akina encourages and welcomes your feedback on this article as well as others he has written for Ka Wai Ola, at TrusteeAkina@oha.org.