Using innovation to rethink government hiring

May 12, 2022

Title: Administrator, Work Hawaii

City: Honolulu, Hawaii

Leina’ala Nakamura runs a program in Honolulu that helps people find work and stay employed. Now, as part of a team of city leaders participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies innovation training program, she’s putting her advocacy for job seekers to work in a new way. 

The Honolulu team is looking at the challenges City Hall faces as an employer in hiring and retaining workers. That was an issue even before the pandemic upended the labor market. Now, the city has more than 2,000 job vacancies, which accounts for about 25 percent of its workforce. That shortage “is impacting the city’s ability to provide quality services for our residents,” Nakamura says.

There are a dozen members of the innovation core team, or what Nakamura affectionately refers to as “The Inny.” They come from human resources, parks and recreation, police, budget, and other departments across city government, a cross-disciplinary group whose diversity is meant to unleash new thinking on a longstanding problem.

They started by diving deep into understanding the dimensions of Honolulu’s hiring problem—not from the city administration’s perspective but from the perspective of people who’ve applied for city jobs and, for any number of reasons, didn’t get the job. The team also interviewed different subgroups of job seekers, including college students, persons with disabilities, and others.

 “What we’ve come to understand is the hiring process is not friendly,” Nakamura says. “The application is in the language of rules and laws. Job seekers look at that and don’t know what it means.”

Nakamura interviewed two transgender individuals, whose experiences made a big impression on her. One spoke of backing out of the application process after it dragged on and on, leaving this person feeling decidedly unwelcome. “I saw the facial expressions, the hurt, the fear of being rejected by others,” Nakamura says. “The person told me, ‘I never applied because I’m scared that I won’t be protected from bullying and harassment.’”

In the coming months, Nakamura and the Honolulu team will collaborate with more job seekers to come up with ideas for how to change the hiring process, and then prototype those ideas to see how they work. “It’s easy to just leave the system there and come up with reasons why it can’t be changed,” she says. “The system has been created and maintained by human beings. And there’s always an opportunity to change it from one human being to the next.”

Pro tip: “Stay humble, listen, learn, and be as open as possible. And appreciate everybody’s mana’o—their thoughts, their aspirations.”