[INSIGHT]Why Bureaucrats Are Losing Faith

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[INSIGHT]Why Bureaucrats Are Losing Faith

Two elements stand out among Korea's bureaucrats today. One is their growing sense of self-scorn, and the other is their taking on stronger characteristics as an interest group. According to government statistics, the competitive rate in the final round of the senior administrative civil service examination reached 81:1 in 1999, but dropped to 64:1 in 2000, and plummeted to 45:1 this year. It is not just the number of the applicants that is falling; many incumbent bureaucrats are leaving voluntarily in search of better jobs at private companies.

What we should note here is not the reasons for this development, but how it is being perceived. A high-ranking government official recently told me, "Why should talented junior officials at the assistant department head level and department heads still be carrying around unnecessary piles of documents? A nation's competitiveness comes from its corporate competitiveness. Outstanding workers should not remain in the bureaucracy, but demonstrate their skills at private companies." A businessman then told me, "It is enough for people of ordinary intelligence to work for the government. But all the smart people in Korea are concentrated in government agencies. These people are using their brains just to devise ingenious regulations."

In short, fewer and fewer people both within and outside government agencies are regarding administrative bureaucrats as the social elite today. But the recent series of frequent personnel changes by the government show that the bureaucracy is still an immensely powerful interest group. The new regulations they devised, such as the newspaper regulations by the Fair Trade Commission, also show that they are still a highly intelligent power group.

The continuous replacement of ministers and vice ministers led to substantial generational changes among the bureaucrats, and many follow-up personnel appointments also took place. The personnel changes still place the top priority on appointing the bureaucrats who passed the senior civil service exam in the same year with a newly appointed minister or vice minister. Almost no cabinet minister is immune to the pressure to look after the interest of fellow bureaucrats who had successfully taken the state-administered exam in the same year. As junior officials, department chiefs and directors of government bureaus, they had been always defined according to the class of the year they passed the exam. Even if the ministers did not take the civil service exam, they meet great opposition if they try to break the rules. If they fail to create positions for members of the same class, they come under sharp criticism for being "incompetent and heartless."

One case in point is the Financial Supervisory Commi-ssion. Its chairman, vice chairman and executives were repeatedly replaced without regard to their term of office or expertise. They were replaced because newly appointed chairmen wanted to find positions for their fellow exam "classmates." The bureaucrats also do not hesitate to go to the extremes to hang onto their positions, like Chairman Lee Nam-kee of the Fair Trade Commission who sparked a controversy, violating regulations on the term of office, which is limited to less than six years, when he was promoted from vice chairman. I am going to outline several examples that show how the smart bureaucrats use their power. When Hyundai's North Korea business project ran into financial difficulties, the Financial Supervisory Commission carried out secret investigations into Hyundai Motor. The purpose was to force the automaker to fund a part of the North Korea business if the commission found any record showing that it had received financial support from Hyundai Engineering and Construction. But the commission found no such evidence and the automaker managed to avoid financing the North Korea project.

The newspaper distribution and advertisement regulations were abolished in January 1999. At the time, a dispute took place between the private citizen members of the Regulatory Reform Committee who were trying to scrap the regulations and the bureaucrats who were trying to keep them in place. "When the newspaper regulations are abolished, it will weaken the government's influence on the press." "That's why they have to be abolished." It does not take much intelligence to guess who said what.

How should we perceive the current situation within the bureaucratic society? In a nutshell, normal incentives for the nation's elite groups are disappearing, whereas abnormal incentives accruing from voluntarily playing up to political power are becoming stronger. The phenomenon will not be restricted to administrative bureaucrats, however. Could it not be that rational and normal incentives for hard-working officials playing by the rules are becoming weaker at the more powerful agencies, such as the prosecution and the National Tax Service?

The nation's future depends on making the most of outstanding personnel who passed the difficult state-administered judicial and administrative examinations. Such talented people should not be berating themselves or forming interest groups. The Civil Service Commission is currently discussing ways of improving the senior civil service examination, but there are limits to the changes it can introduce when it is thinking of merely changing the exam subjects. It is more important to give bureaucrats rational incentives in compensation and promotions and curb irrational incentives that rely on political power.


The writer is chief editor of economic news of the Joongang Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil

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