Engendering Competent Officials

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Engendering Competent Officials

The President Alone Cannot Steer the Ship of State

A newspaper marketing adage holds that a paper needs a stable of stars - topnotch columnists, celebrated figures with strong opinions, and reputable reporters - for it to do well. With these elements in place, the newspaper''s credibility and readership will rise.

The same could apply to an incumbent administration or a political party. A capable administration would be one comprised of eminent ministers and officials whose character and policies inspire public confidence.
In the case of the incumbent South Korean administration and the ruling party, it would seem there is not a single minister or ranking official that rises to the abovementioned criteria. There is only President Kim Dae-jung, a keen intellect, standing alone, proudly, but by himself.
Below Mr. Kim stands the prime minister. How many consider him to be a distinguished or even an influential figure in the cabinet? Nobody knows what he does, what role he plays, or what opinions he has. In what many feel is a time of national crisis, the prime minister has been quiet as a field mouse.

As the head of the United Liberal Democrats, the self-proclaimed bastion of conservatism in Korea, the prime minister has yet to utter a word about the government''s North Korea policy, a policy that has been criticized of being advanced too speedily on a one-way highway, with only the North benefiting.

If we apply the same criteria to the ruling party, the results are not dissimilar. It is doubtful that anyone regards the party chairman as a figure of influence or a notable party representative. In fact, many regard him as a hired representative without any real authority. And there are a number of Supreme Council members directly elected by party deputies, but nobody has any idea what they do.

And the same holds true for the incumbent administration. With the exception of the president, there is an absolute dearth of trustworthy officials. As competent and able as Mr. Kim might be, he alone cannot fill the vacuum left by the lack of capable officials. Perhaps this vacuum is partly the cause of sustained crises the administration has been suffering since its inauguration.
If incompetent people are appointed to important positions, they should be replaced, several times a year if need be. If qualified people were appointed to key positions, but not empowered to carry out their duties, it is a waste of precious talent - and a great loss for the nation. A system has to be in place to enable the prime minister, ministers and directors to exercise their duties based on convictions and in deference to the law.

It is said government officials are entrenched in their positions, doing little but rolling their eyes, occasionally raising a finger to see which way the wind blows, avoiding promotions and transfers to prominent positions.
Why is that so? The answer is simple; They believe that the best way to protect themselves is to hibernate, and wait for the storm to pass. They try to gauge the mind of the president and defer to him in order to save their political hides.

It is the president''s fault if the people around and below him are failing to do their jobs, despite his best intentions.

Mr. Kim recently repeated that he is going to personally set the nation''s economy on the correct course . But the economy is not something that is only addressed periodically - like a ship, it needs somebody at the helm, a navigator, and officers to administer the vessel on a full time basis.

The economy must be placed in good hands as inter-Korean relations are being pursued and the nation is hosting such international conferences as the Asia-Europe Meeting. It has to be overseen by seasoned professionals even while the president is riding in the same car with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.

Occupied by a wide range of responsibilities, the president should be able to delegate economic matters to the prime minister, ministers and chief aides. Why else do we have a system of government and legal provisions? This is not a matter confined to the economy alone, but applies to every area, from politics to security and society.
It should come as no surprise that an administration would find itself facing constant crises if the system worked only when the head of state was alone at the helm, with his first officer and chief navigator asleep in their cabins.

Such a situation cannot inspire politicians or officials to rise to the occasion, and advance opinions to assist the head of state . Those under the president must take some initiative, risk taking a political punch, and do the job that is expected of them. Deferring to superiors and obediently following orders might win the favor of the president, but it will not inculcate in future government appointees a sense that they can make a worthwhile contribution to the nation and its leader. People in influential positions have to earn their power through their ability and achievements. The old-fashioned political networks like "Dongkyo-dong line," or provincial ties proved to be failures.

A system that prevents the emergence of competent and driven individuals to seek employment in the government rather than the private sector may help us solve some of the problems facing the country. As we struggle to overcome what appears to be another crisis, we have to give serious thought to the quality of people the administration is employing, and how it is using them.

The writer is a senior editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo

by Song Chin-hyok

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