The Missile Employee Messed Up Because Hawaii Rewards Incompetence

Gene Park, Washington Post, February 1, 2018

This week, we learned the man responsible for the bogus Hawaii missile alert kept his job for a decade even though he had a history of performance problems and has been a “source of concern,” according to an Federal Communications Commission report. His co-workers had expressed discomfort about his leadership, and the FCC said he has been “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 supervisor, who remains unnamed, was a union member, he could have been fired at will. Instead, he was promoted to a leadership role. “Why,” Gizmodo understandably wondered, “was the employee in a position to send a false missile alarm to a couple 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 Commerce Department, and then spent more than seven years dealing with the government as a journalist. Anyone who knows how Honolulu functions cannot have been surprised by this week’s revelations. The sad part is the worker’s incompetence and the chaos he caused have exposed to the world ugly, old tropes about Hawaiian accountability and competence about the state residents would love nothing more than to shake off. “How many more noneffective employees are on the job here in Hawaii?” asked a local on Hawaii News Now’s Facebook page.

There is a strong assumption in the islands that once you enter the state government system, you are set for life. There are great retirement benefits, union protections and the ability to move up, and laterally, across departments. (According to figures drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hawaii has the second-highest rate of union membership—more than 20 percent—after New York.) The prevailing assumption is: You do not have to work that hard.

And there is no cost for messing up. Vern Miyagi, the emergency management chief who resigned in the wake of the FCC report Tuesday, made his reluctance to fire the alert author clear: “You gotta know this guy feels bad right? I mean he’s not doing this on purpose.” I also recall a Honolulu police officer who was fired in 2012 for falsifying reports and lying to investigators, then was 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 a year while the feds investigated him for using police resources to frame someone for a personal vendetta.

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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. It is hard to see how this episode inspires any confidence for investors and start-up wunderkinds.

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I often heard residents of my old state parrot a Japanese saying: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. People who want reform, or just 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 will be rewarded when you are good and old.

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