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Slam the System, Not the People

Slam the System, Not the People

People who grew up on a Hawaii plantation often have fond memories of that time. Their families were poor and there was hardship, but the sense of community was so strong that people acted generously, cared for each other and acted collaboratively. Some might say that people were better back then, but I suspect that it was their peculiar situation that helped bring out the best in those people.

I have worked for 13 different companies since my childhood, big and small, union and nonunion, mostly as a worker, but as a manager for the last decade and a half. In each circumstance, I acted in subtly but meaningfully different ways. I like to think of myself as a good person of steadfast principles — I think we all like to see ourselves that way — but the reality is that our actions are shaped by circumstance. Some of my workplaces facilitated energetic and intelligent work and others did not, and that affected how I acted and what I could accomplish.

I have never worked for a government agency, so when I look at the state government I do not have the benefit of experience. But what I see mostly are good people trying to do their best in a system that is broken. The system often prevents them from doing their best, so they do what seems possible. To reform state government, we need to stop slamming the people who work there, and instead slam the system that harms both the workers and the tax-payers. Create a system that encourages and allows the outcomes we want.

Government unions are part of the problem because they are focused solely on what seems best for their members — wages, benefits, job security — rather than also what is best for students and other recipients of government services. Furlough Fridays is the most obvious evidence of that.

To fix government, unions will have to change. Some private-sector unions have already changed because they recognize that the national and global economies have been transformed. Now those unions are working with businesses to preserve jobs and to prepare their members with new skills.

But government unions are not the only problem. This month’s stories on procurement (pages 24-34) show that if we created a better system of state contracting, we would save taxpayers’ money, deliver better services faster, and ensure a level field for companies bidding for government work. Given their resources and training, the people now doing procurement may be doing the best that they know how in a bad situation. We can fix that. Federal government procurement, for example, though not perfect, shows there is a far better way. And it will actually save the state and taxpayers money.

As the Legislature meets to resolve the current crisis in state government, all of us need to focus on fixing the flaws in the system. If we slam govern-ment workers and others, those people will just circle their wagons, hunker down for a siege and little will change. Remember the plantation days: Everyone worked together for the common good. This time, the goal is a better state government, and especially a school system that puts our children’s education first. Working together, we can do it.

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Hawaii Business,February