Civil Beat’s 'Integrity Investigation' Questioned

Flickr: Kenny Miller

Editor's Note: Civil Beat's participation in the State Integrity Investigation, a 50-state assessment of government transparency and anti-corruption efforts, was the subject of a recent post on Ian Lind's blog. It has been reprinted here with his permission, along with Civil Beat's response.

Civil Beat spent a lot of time and put a good deal of resources into the State Integrity Investigation done in cooperation with several national groups, including the Center for Public Integrity.

I was one of those consulted along the way about several areas of investigation, and I came away from the experience doubtful about the methodology (a standardized interview protocol with sometimes strange and extremely repetitive questions) and unsure about their ability to extract correct answers.

The results have been trickled out, and I’m just now trying to go back and check them out.

Some of the “findings” appear to me to be plainly wrong. Take the case of this category, “civil service management.”

Hawaii was given an overall grade of “D”.

You have to drill down through several levels of questions to see what the “scores” are based on.

For example, Civil Beat gave Hawaii a 50% score on this question: “Are there regulations for the state civil service encompassing, at least, the managerial and professional staff?”

Why only 50%? Well, it was based on answers to four separate questions. Hawaii received a 100% grade on two, and zero on the other two.

But one of these scores appears to be plainly incorrect.

Hawaii was given a zero rating for failing to meet this criteria:

171: In law, there are regulations to prevent nepotism (favorable treatment of family members), cronyism (favorable treatment of friends and colleagues), or patronage (favorable treatment of those who reward their superiors) within the civil service.

Civil Beat explained it this way:

The state law specifies equal opportunity for all under the civil service provision. It does not specifically use the terms “nepotism,” “cronyism” and “patronage,” but the equal opportunity principle may apply. See below.

Whether or not those specific terms are used, Hawaii clearly prohibits favorable treatment of family members, friends, and others.

Those provisions are prominent parts of Chapter 84, “Standards of Conduct,” and apply to all state employees and officials, whether covered by civil service or in exempt positions.

This is usually referred to as our ethics law, but it actually appears among various provisions regulating actions of all public officers and employees.

So it seems to me that Hawaii didn’t deserve a zero in this case.

And it’s just one example where the overall effort fell short.

Take another question: “Are the regulations addressing conflicts of interest for civil servants effective?”

Here Hawaii was giving failing grades of just 25% for regulation of post-government employment and regulation of gifts.

Here the scoring seems to be far too subjective. For example, the low rating on regulation of gifts appears to be based on reports of formal investigations into alleged improper gifts.

Reported gift violations triggered enforcement action. Sounds like the law was working.

So should enforcement actions like this be seen as positives that would boost our score or, as Civil Beat decided, as negatives that lowered our score?

CB went one way, I would have gone the other.

The examples go on, even in this one category.

Here are two related criteria.

First: “In law, citizens can access the asset disclosure records of senior state civil servants.”

Hawaii was given a 100% score, based on the statute requiring that directors and deputy directors, along with members of certain specific boards, must file public financial disclosures.

Fair enough.

Then here’s the following criteria: “In practice, citizens can access the asset disclosure records of senior state civil servants within a reasonable time period.”

Hawaii was give a zero in this category, even though those required public disclosures (the ones that earned the 100% score above) are available online and are posted relatively promptly.

Based on this sample, I have to take the findings of the whole project with a big grain of salt. Interesting, but not necessarily reliable. And drilling down through the layers of questions and subjective evaluations isn’t quick or simple.

And so it goes on this Saturday morning.

Have feedback? Suggestions?