With almost 30 years of public service as a state lawmaker under his belt, Hawaii Sen. David Ige, D-Pearl City, has weathered a litany of political issues in the state. Although his time in the Hawaii Legislature draws to a close, Ige’s passion for technology and desire to modernize IT operations are driving his campaign for governor.
In an interview with Government Technology, Ige spoke at length about his disappointment with IT efficiency in state government and why he thinks Hawaii’s online health insurance exchange is having problems.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Government Technology: What technology issues were major factors in your decision to run for governor of Hawaii this year?
David Ige: We finally did establish the chief information officer position for state government, but I’ve been disappointed with the implementation of that office, as well as implementation of a lot of technology projects over the last four years. We funded at least $250 million of IT projects for various portions of state government and unfortunately … they’ve taken the money, hired a lot of consultants, but there has been very little change in the structure or organization of state government.
There really needs to be a transformation to embed technology and reorganize government, and I don’t see it happening.
GT: It appeared Hawaii was making good progress on IT modernization by hiring Sonny Bhagowalia in 2011 as the state’s first full-time CIO. So what’s been happening on the inside to sour your opinion?
DI: There were some good strides made. But even when we passed legislation to create the chief information officer position, I knew that there needed to be a restructuring and redefinition of the IT positions in state government. For the most part, the job descriptions, pay levels, sequencing of promotions and other kinds of things for IT professionals in state government are so antiquated and off-scale that I knew … we would not make progress. And none of that [restructuring] has occurred in state government.
If you look at the key [technology] leaders, they’re still on private-sector funds. They’re not state employees. And the governor’s office has had to implement a work-around, rather than really implementing the reorganization and restructuring of the information technology organization for state government.
Sonny never became a state employee. He was on a private contract for most of the time [he was here]. So … they really haven’t gone through and done the hard work of reclassifying and redefining positions in a way that would provide ongoing continuity and flexibility that we know the whole industry has embraced.
GT: You and Gov. Neil Abercrombie had a televised debate earlier this month where you traded barbs over the Hawaii Health Connector. What’s the issue and what approach toward the online health exchange will you take if elected governor?
DI: Hawaii passed the Hawaii Prepaid Health Care Act more than 30 years ago, which mandates that businesses provide health insurance for any employee working more than 20 hours per week. This has resulted in the uninsured in Hawaii being a very small population.
On the largest and grandest policy issue, I think that we should have sought the blanket exemption from Obamacare and then sought to see what components of the Affordable Care Act at the federal level made sense to be implemented in Hawaii. But the governor decided to embrace the whole act, and now we’re trying to seek exemptions from those provisions that don’t make sense.
GT: The Hawaii Health Connector has been blasted for having a number of glitches -- and having one of the nation’s lowest enrollment numbers. Why has it been such a problem?
DI: We have the Health Connector trying to establish a program to cover the uninsured, and the state of Hawaii got $205 million in federal grants to implement that program. On the state side, the Medicaid program, we had gotten $24 million, most of that is federal money, to implement a Medicaid eligibility system, and those systems are really very similar in terms of function. They’re a little different in terms of who is eligible, but they were developed totally siloed … because they had two committed pots of money.
I think that’s what has caused the biggest problems in the operations of the Health Connector. Because the Medicaid eligibility system and the Health Connector system really do need to interface on lots of different things. And because they were designed and developed as two independent systems, the connections between them is what caused a lot of the problems and delays in the rollout of the Health Connector.
GT: Looking back at almost three decades as a state lawmaker, what legislation did you push through that you feel has had the greatest impact on Hawaii?
DI: The first clearly was the creation of the Hawaii Strategic Development Corporation (HSDC). I had initiated that back in 1990, so it was more than 20 years ago. It was at a time when we had first discussed economic diversification and trying to help to build much broader technology industry in the state of Hawaii. And it really is an organization … really focused on venture capital and making private equity and risk capital available to entrepreneurs in Hawaii.
At the time that I had initiated that program, there were zero venture investments made in the state. So it was clear that access to capital was one of the things that prohibited technology companies from really expanding and becoming more vibrant part of our economy. At that point in time, we had a series of very successful technology ventures get started in Hawaii, but they left due to access to capital.
Today, we have a pretty active startup and seed capital program. It’s small by Silicon Valley standards, but we probably have about 100 to 150 startups and $80 million of initial startup and seed capital investments made in the state now.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.