Politics & Policy

In Hawaii, No Heads Roll over False Missile Alarm

An electronic sign in Oahu, Hawaii, January 13, 2018. (Photo: @sighpoutshrug/Instagram/via Reuters)
It’s time we demand more accountability from the people who have such influence over our daily lives.

In ancient Hawaii, members of the outcast class Kauwa were often sacrificed to the gods.

No one is suggesting that anything like that be done in the wake of the incredible blunder by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency staffer who triggered a ballistic-missile alert on Saturday by hitting the wrong button twice during a drill. But apparently, no one is resigning, and the staffer in question is merely being “counseled” and retrained so he doesn’t do it again. According to state officials, the staffer answered “yes” when asked by the system if he was sure he wanted to send the message. He wasn’t even aware of his mistake until mobile phones near him began displaying the alert.

“This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose. It was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,” explained Hawaii EMA administrator Vern Miyagi, a former Army major general. But Miyagi declined to say that the staffer would face any disciplinary actions. Richard Rapoza, the official spokesman for EMA, declined to identify the errant employee and added, “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public. This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

Actually, it is. In the Air Force my father served in for some 20 years, anyone who committed such a blunder would have been demoted or cashiered — along with any superior officer, such as Miyagi, who had failed to put in place redundancies to prevent such a fiasco. That kind of accountability strikes me as a pretty good way to start to “reassure the public.”

It’s not as if EMA didn’t have any clues something was potentially wrong. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that while 93 percent of test alerts issued last month had worked, some could hardly be heard and a dozen mistakenly played an ambulance siren.

During the 38-minute delay before a correction was issued on Saturday, mass panic broke out across the islands, with some parents hiding their children in storm drains. “There will probably be lawsuits and all kinds of repercussions,” a long-time Hawaii journalist told me. “People were calling each other for final goodbyes, and crying and panicking.”

The repercussions are already beginning. Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, lambasted state officials for not having reasonable safeguards in place. “False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies,” Pai said. Brigette Namata, a television reporter in Honolulu, said it was “mind-boggling that we have officials here, we have state workers that are in charge of our public safety and a huge, egregious mistake like this happened.”

But as former Hawaii state senator Sam Slom once observed to me, “No state worker on Hawaii ever gets fired for anything.” Apologies are also very rare.

Other cultures handle things differently. Gary Knight, a professor of international business who teaches annually in Japan, told Business Insider that “it’s certainly the norm” for someone to apologize and often resign after “a blunder that affects employees or customers.”

Rodney Clark, the author of the classic book The Japanese Company, has written: “Once a Japanese manager or his underlings are caught in a scandalous situation, they have no other choice but to resign so that the many others who are dependent on them do not take the blame or suffer any of the consequences.”

We have increasingly adopted the opposite approach in the U.S., especially in our public sector. In the private sector, there is still some personal responsibility. You once in a while will get a package with a “Inspected by xxxx” card included, and many employees still wear badges with their names on them.

We have increasingly adopted the opposite approach in the U.S., especially in our public sector.

But how often does a government employee wear such a badge so we know whom to credit or blame? Does any government bureaucrat ever “sign his work” when he issues a mysterious regulation? We may know the name of the political official in charge of the relevant agency, but just try to find the person who actually wrote the gobbledygook and have him explain it. Bureaucrats, such as the state of Hawaii employee who panicked 1.5 million people, treasure their anonymity.

It’s time we demand more accountability from the people who have such influence over our daily lives. Of course, what we would like others to do is also something many of us are leery of when it comes to our own actions. If you want to know why the U.S. has lost much of its accountability culture, many of us need do no more than look in the mirror.

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