Hawaii missile employee messed up because officials don’t care about accountability

  • Gene Park

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 they say in the islands, e komo mai (welcome) to Hawaii.

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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 resident 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 (Department of Land and Natural Resources on the Big Island) as a law enforcement officer, only to be convicted last year of sexually assaulting 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.

Meanwhile, the strong local whisper network (coconut wireless, as it is called) has not led to any major #MeToo-style firings, and I doubt it will. It is a small community that dislikes shaming. Despite that his salary is paid by tax dollars, and he led hundreds of thousands to believe they would imminently die, the man behind the phone alert still remains unaccountable to the public.

Another problem is state workers who want to buckle down are saddled with obsolete tech. Hawaii Gov. David Ige said after the alert debacle he did not know his own Twitter password (and apparently neither did his communications staff) — a perfect encapsulation of how behind the state’s tech is. It is a government that pays its employees via a financial accounting platform that’s 40 years old strung together with parts bought on eBay.

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 startup wunderkinds.

When I worked at the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs in 2013, I remember opening a PDF attachment and closing my eyes for a few minutes while my outdated, state-issued computer opened the file only a few megabytes large. It was a great time to rest before spending two hours out to lunch with the rest of your colleagues — a normal occurrence for state employees.

Culturally, Hawaii tends to reward seniority, not competence. Careers often advance only when incumbent workers resign or die. In 2006, when Time magazine called octogenarian Hawaii’s Dan Akaka one of the five worst U.S. senators for sponsoring only minor resolutions and bills that died in committee, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case decided to challenge him in the Democratic primary. A 2006 Honolulu Star-Bulletin piece surveyed the widespread reaction to this brazen maneuver. Sample comment: “Wait his turn! Has he no respect for his elders?” Case lost by 10 percentage points.

That is a sentiment young people (and apparently 54-year-old members of Congress) hear often in Hawaii. The writer of that 2006 essay rued how “local values” insist on deference and conformity. “If I were first to speak, I’d be called ‘pushy.’ If my answers were too outrageous, I might be teased,” she wrote. “Best to keep silent.”

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.

That attitude has consequences. This week’s report shows it was no secret the missile alert’s author was inept. Yet he somehow landed the critical job of telling an entire state whether they could die of a nuclear blast. While 10 years passed, his supervisors did nothing to remove him from a job they knew he was unqualified for, nor did they implement any procedures on what to do when someone accidentally sends a missile alert. It took a national embarrassment to dislodge him from his job.

A nuclear reality is a new one for Hawaii residents to face, one they are clearly unprepared for. The way things were done before did not suffice, and it appears nobody who could change it stuck out and risked getting hammered down.

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In 2018, speed and accountability are life-or-death matters, and Hawaii is not ready. For 10 years and more, it tolerated incompetence. It cannot afford another 10 years of inaction. This is not a drill.

Gene Park is an audience editor for The Washington Post, embedded with Opinions, Outlook and PostEverything. He also is the voice of The Washington Post on Reddit.