중앙데일리

[In-depth interview]Mayor takes aim at public slackers

Apr 03,2007
Park Maeng-woo
In January, the mayor of Ulsan Metropolitan City on the country’s southeastern coast began an experiment to end longstanding personnel practices that virtually guaranteed public servants an “iron rice bowl” for life. “I didn’t think an initiative by a small city would spread this fast nationwide. I think it speaks for what the people want of officialdom,” Mayor Park Maeng-woo said in an interview recently.
Regulations governing public servants in Korea bar local governments from firing public servants unless they are convicted of a crime and receive a prison term, in which case they can be dismissed for cause. Because of this legal protection, many public servants have gotten slack, but the mayor has demonstrated that he would use his personnel authority to fire workers who are incompetent. Mayor Park’s initiative has inspired some 30 regional governments, including Seoul Metropolitan City, to introduce similar measures. The move spread nationwide in 50 days.
Born in 1950 in Ulsan, Park Maeng-woo entered government service in 1981. Until 1994, he served in the Home Affairs Ministry. From 1994 to 2001, he served at the South Gyeongsang provincial government and Ulsan city government. He was elected mayor of Ulsan in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.

Q.It has been two months since your experiment began. What is your assessment?
A: It is in the early stages, and it is too early to say whether or not it is a success. But more than 100 government bodies, universities and companies have asked me for advice, and similar experiments are being done in dozens of places. I guess this shows that we chose the right direction. At city hall, workers’ pace, concentration and attitude toward the people have really changed. The public has highly rated our effort.

What triggered your experiment?
As a mayor, the most difficult task for me was personnel affairs. Whenever reshuffle season came, managers and directors came to me saying it would be more efficient to leave some posts vacant, rather than filling them with problem people. Having just forcefully reassigned those people, it is hard for me to hold the managers and directors responsible for the [slackers’] poor performance.
I began to think that the practice of keeping incapable people [just] because they were fellow public servants would not work any more. After thinking at length, I concluded that it would be better to manage such people separately, even if some positions would be left empty. [As a first step, public servants who have been determined to be incompetent are assigned to the city’s reinforcement group, which is involved in menial tasks like sweeping the streets or directing traffic.]

What are the goals of your experiment?
Some had misunderstood that Ulsan city was trying to cut surplus manpower for restructuring through this initiative, but that is a totally different matter. The first goal is to [light a fire under] officialdom. The second goal is to provide an opportunity for slacking public servants to reawaken.

How did you prepare?
I formed a task force to study examples from other countries. The finalized method was announced in November last year, two months before the experiment began, in order to alert all workers and to give them a chance to catch up.

Which public servants should be concerned?
It is those who have no willingness or ability to work for the public, and people who are disruptive in the work environment. Public servants are given protection for job security so that they will not face temptation [such as bribes]. It is inappropriate for some to [take it to mean] there are no grounds to be fired if one does not work hard.

How did you set the standards for selecting such people?
I focused on listening to people and creating a standard that everyone can agree on. First, I created a system for directors to choose managers and working-level officials. When directors made recommendations for working-level officials, they had to first go through serious consultations with the managers, who are the direct supervisors of the working-level officials. That was to guarantee fairness and objectivity.
This selection went on for three rounds, and at last, four were left over who were assigned to the city reinforcement group, where they would work on menial tasks. While doing so, they would have time to reflect on their past performance and resolve to do better.

Were there any protests?
At first, they complained, demanding explanations. But after we explained to them what we are aiming for and how other workers evaluated them, they admitted their shortcomings. Nowadays, I receive reports that they are really working hard on their tasks.

There is criticism that this method smacks of favoritism.
A public servants’ union at another regional government reportedly made such a criticism. The union was questioning the fairness of the selection process, but there was no doubt about the system itself. It is more accurate to say that the experiment is an effort to reform longstanding personnel practices of favoritism, seniority and leniency.
Let’s say a director selected an incapable worker over a talented worker for any reason other than performance. Then, the director will have to work with the incapable worker, and his office will become inefficient.

What needs to be improved?
I aim to create a dynamic work environment. Some may have regarded the selection system as a punishment, but there was another experiment alongside it, which got overshadowed. A talented worker will be guaranteed his choice of office to work in, which is a reward, even over the objection of his senior manager. I also plan to change our promotion system to focus on performance and ability rather than seniority.

What is the future of those sent to the reinforcement group?
After one year, we will evaluate their performance and attitude, and reinstate them based on the outcome. If they fall short, they will serve in the group for another year. If again they don’t make it, then they will lose their job title and receive a three-month project. Those who fail again will be dismissed.

Some criticize the initiative as a populist experiment.
Like many, I joined officialdom seeking a stable job and have worked as a public servant for 20 years. But rejecting change is not the right way to serve the public, who is our employer.
It is a sensitive experiment, because it will affect the lives of some public servants and their families, so a thorough preparation had to come first. In particular, a transparent and fair selection process is a must. If I fail to do it properly, I will be dismissed by the public.

Do you have any advice for the city workers?
The public does not want to pay salaries to lazy public servants. I hope those in the reinforcement group will make this an opportunity to catch up. The rest of the public servants should also be on notice and work hard to serve the people.


By Lee Ki-won JoongAng Ilbo [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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