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Coronavirus pandemic turbocharges Hawaii government’s use of tech

Before the pandemic, a Hawaii state senator drafted legislation to compel the University of Hawaii’s board to livestream its meetings so faculty and students on different islands could watch. University officials asked for two years to implement the idea.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the board’s support staff threw together its first livestreamed meeting in three days.

Across Hawaii’s state government, the need to prevent the spread of disease has similarly turbocharged the use of technology. It’s a big change for an acknowledged tech laggard. And it’s unleashing new ways of doing things that officials say are likely here to stay.

“It was stressful, but also probably one of the things I felt really good about last year,” said Kendra Oishi, the university board’s executive administrator and secretary.

To understand how giant these leaps are, consider that until a few years ago clerks processed state employee overtime by hand and calculator and penciled totals in a ledger. Some state government workers must still fill out carbon paper forms to request leave.

During the pandemic, state courts went from holding essentially no videoconferences to conducting 128,000 cases on Zoom and WebEx between August and December.

Chief Justice Mark Reck­tenwald said the Judiciary was “creating the courts of the future” that were more responsive to a community accustomed to doing business online.

And for the first time, the state Legislature is allowing people to testify via online video since the Capitol building remains closed for health reasons. The move also makes it easier for residents on islands other than Oahu to air their views to lawmakers.

“They don’t have to get on a plane, fly to Honolulu, rent a car, come to the Capitol, which is how it used to be,” said state Sen. Kalani English, a Democrat who represents parts of Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

Doug Murdock, the state’s chief information officer, said more state employees are using features like electronic signatures, which allow people to approve documents digitally instead of putting pen to paper. Reducing the risk of transmitting the virus is an incentive, as is the impracticality of sending documents to people’s homes and the time saved by not waiting for papers to be physically delivered from office to office or through the mail.

Gov. David Ige has been a longtime advocate of cutting down on paper, dating back to his days in the state Senate, which went paperless in 2008. He pushed the executive branch to follow suit after his 2014 inauguration, but many agencies were “dragging their feet,” he said in a recent interview.

“We might have gotten maybe halfway through before the pandemic. And clearly, now everyone is on board because they do see how much more convenient and quicker it can be,” Ige said.

The governor said the state should save money in the long term as agencies become more efficient and effective, but didn’t provide a dollar figure.

For the public, however, the state’s high-profile struggles with antiquated technology — like its circa-­1980s unemployment claims processing system — might stand out more than the behind-the-scenes advances.

Soon after the pandemic reached Hawaii and tourism shut down, a flood of unemployment insurance benefit claims overwhelmed the state. Claims took weeks or more to process. Claimants, as in other states, waited on hold all day to get help over the phone.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations in April boosted its processing capacity with the help of volunteers from the Legislature and other parts of government. It moved call center systems to the cloud, helping workers handle more calls.

This month it announced plans to hire a company that updated Alabama’s claims system shortly before the pandemic.

Christine Sakuda, executive director of Transform Hawaii Government, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a modern digital government, said executive and legislative branches have for decades prioritized spending on programs that directly benefit citizens rather than invest in themselves. But she said that logic was shortsighted.

“Kicking the can down the road and waiting for another time to modernize key infrastructure only debilitates the state’s ability to respond effectively to community needs,” she said.

Many of the changes prompted by the pandemic will likely remain in place.

Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said some state agencies have approached his union, the state’s largest, about having some workers continue teleworking because they find the arrangement to be efficient and effective.

The union is open to teleworking, which provides flexibility to employers and employees, he said. But some things will likely need to be negotiated, like addressing the higher home electrical bills some workers have incurred while working remotely.

Lawmakers with the Women’s Legislative Caucus have introduced bills promoting teleworking.

Murdock, the state’s chief IT officer, envisions chatbots and voice bots — artificial intelligence that answers basic questions — will play a larger role for the state in the future.

Hawaii has already used them to conduct quarantine checks on travelers during the pandemic.

“If you want to talk to an agent, you might have to wait half an hour. But if you’re willing to talk to the chatbot, you might get your answer in two or three minutes,” he said.

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