[NOTEBOOK]Everybody Wants a Government Title

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[NOTEBOOK]Everybody Wants a Government Title

One rather idiosyncratic annual event in Korean official society is that 10 officials from each central administrative organization are supposed to go on a mountain hiking expedition.

But at this year's jaunt, officials from only 36 of the 54 organizations took part. Many of the agencies that did not send officials explained that they have so small a number of employees that it is difficult to form a hiking team composed of the rank and file. In fact, of the 54 agencies, about 10 have less than 100 employees each. But despite their small size, those agencies are headed by minister and vice minister-level officials.

The current administration was launched in February 1998 under the slogan of a "small government." So far, it has reduced the number of central government employees by 16 percent, and slashed provincial government staffing by 19 percent. Neverthe-less, the public does not seem to have noticed the difference, because the 63,000 job cuts were targeted mostly at low-ranking positions.

The number of government organizations such as ministries, administrations and offices now stands at 38 - exactly the same number as in the Kim Young-sam administration. There has been some vague, ineffectual reshuffling. The post of deputy prime minister was abolished and then revived. The Kim Dae-jung administration closed down the Ministry of Information, in charge of government public relations, before reinstating it under a new name, the Government Infor-mation Agency.

In other words, the number of ministers and vice ministers has not been cut. Instead, several commissions headed by minister-level officials have been created, expanding senior positions.

The United States and Japan have far greater populations than Korea but fewer ministers. The number of parliamentary members in those two countries is also fewer than in Korea, in proportion to population. But does this mean Korea's government is performing better than they are?

In fact, Korea's government organizations are subdivided so excessively as to generate effects such as overlapping responsibilities. A case in point is the recent turf war among three ministries - Information and Communications, Science and Technology, and Industry, Commerce and Energy - to take the lead role in formulating national information technology policy. There is also no clear line demarcating some of the roles of the Ministry of Finance and Economy, the Ministry of Planning and Budget and the Financial Supervisory Commis-sion.

There is also a high turnover in senior officials. According to the Civil Service Commission, 165 officials have held positions at the vice minister level or higher over the 34 months of the current administration. This leads to inefficiency and compromises government authority.

The more politically backward a country is, the more high-ranking positions it has. Russia has five deputy prime ministers in addition to a large number of ministers. North Korea has two deputy prime ministers and eight party secretaries at the same level.

What is common in countries that have succeeded in reforming the public sector is that they focused on slimming down government. Japan this year slashed the number of central government organizations to 13 from 22. With a population of 15,000, the Cook Islands in the South Pacific had as many as 100 parliamentary members and 400 public officials just five years ago. Now, the number has shrunk to 24 representatives and 150 government officials.

"Self-employed people are at a loss to which agency to go to - the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, the Small and Medium Business Administration or the Special Committee on Small and Medium Business," a local entrepreneur said in an e-mail to the JoongAng Ilbo. "In short, there are just too many government organizations."


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The writer is an industrial news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Min Byong-kwan

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