COVID spurs bills to streamline government services

Dan Nakaso, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·4 min read

Mar. 4—Prompted by huge changes and challenges triggered by COVID-19, efforts are underway in the Legislature to make good on long-promised moves to streamline state government operations, upgrade antiquated computer systems and allow state employees to permanently work from home when possible.

After COVID-19 forced the closure of the state Capitol last year, legislative leaders were quickly able to expand online access to hearings—along with boards, commissions and the University of Hawaii, which for years had argued that such access would be difficult to implement—said state Sen.

Sharon Moriwaki, chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, which has heard several bills mandating streamlined government operations.

Moriwaki had heard excuses why remote learning and online meetings could not occur. Then they suddenly became reality last year.

"This is the new norm, " she said. "When you have to do it, you do it."

Longer-term solutions to make a deeper dent in streamlining state government operations still could be years away.

Senate Bill 1303 would have required the director of the state Department of Budget and Finance to review all state agencies biennially for possible ways to streamline operations, and report the findings at the start of each legislative biennial session.

The bill was deferred after Moriwaki's committee was told that Budget and Finance already is working on the reviews.

But the updated version of remains alive and would require the state Department of Health to reorganize.

"The legislature finds that the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic highlighted the need to modernize government to meet the urgent needs of the community, " according to SB1018. "Further, the pandemic has highlighted the need for greater flexibility, responsiveness, transparency, and accountability in how government interfaces with and responds to the community."

The bill would require the Health Department to create a two-year pilot project reorganization of its behavioral health services administration ; environmental health administration ; general administration, including the office of the director of health ; and health resources administration.

The updated version of also would require the office of enterprise technology services to establish policies and to work with departments and agencies to permit authorized state employees to telework from home or at "off-worksite locations " using secure computer access.

According to SB1016, "The legislature finds that the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic has required many state employees to work from home or other remote locations to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, the relocation of state employees to non-traditional work environments has left an indelible impression on the possibilities of how state work can be accomplished.

"The legislature also finds that working from home or other off-worksite locations has demonstrated cost-effectiveness and productivity in rendering public serv ­ices. Remote teleworking can and should continue to remain an important option for state employees who can accomplish their duties outside of their traditional work environment. Social distancing and decreasing employees' physical presence in state facilities can continue to provide a defense against the spread of infectious disease as well as enable more cost-efficient use of state office facilities.

"The legislature has determined that employees working off ‑site enables the State to make better use of its limited resources, including but not limited to office space, furnishing, equipment, electrical and data requirements, storage space, and other traditional needs of employees who work at state facilities. Employees who can accomplish the same work from an off-site location may prefer to work at home to accommodate the caregiving of keiki and kupuna. These considerations can result in a win-win outcome for taxpayers and state employees."

Today Moriwaki is scheduled to get an update on progress to upgrade antiquated computer systems at state departments, including the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, that have led to delays in sending out unemployment benefits.

Rather than hiring consultants "that come and go, " Moriwaki said she would like to see extensive training of department employees and expansion of efforts to share data.

DLIR officials have reported difficulties in adapting to unemployment changes from the first two rounds of federal stimulus, as well as the overwhelming requests for unemployment insurance claims.

The pace of changes—both real and anticipated—shows how COVID-19 has led to changes that have been stalled for years and could lead to a new era of streamlined state government, Moriwaki said.

The pandemic, she said, "shows that there are things that can happen when there is a will to do something. The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has jolted us to action."