[REPORTER'S DIARY]It All Begins With AccountabilityWhen we asked government officials why no one seems to be prepared to take responsibility for failing public projects, the answers were invariably along the following lines:
"Even If you manage to determine which officials were involved in projects that began 10 to 20 years ago, you would have no way to punish them at this late date.
"And, frankly speaking, did government officials ever really have the freedom to give independent approval to large-scale, state-invested projects? The projects were carelessly promoted by politicians, who are interested in nothing but attracting votes."
The nation is currently reeling from the aftermath of the hasty approval of a number of these projects, such as the Saemangeum tideland reclamation and the Sihwa fresh water reservoir construction.
Since the 1960s, such projects usually have begun with a politician's bid to attract voters; they put in motion projects that lack precise design and have numerous defects.
The construction term is extended, costs balloon and we are left with a sea of red ink. Then government officials get busy shifting the blame onto someone else.
To highlight such bad practices, more than a month ago the JoongAng Ilbo surveyed the state of those projects currently in progress, such as the Incheon International Airport, the Seoul-Pusan high-speed rail link and new harbor construction projects.
We concluded that those projects will suffer many of the same problems as the older projects unless the current system is changed.
In this system it is unclear who is responsible for each stage of the project, and it is difficult to assess the viability of the project once it is in progress.
Accordingly, about 104 trillion won ($80.8 billion) of funds are in danger of being wasted on these projects.
To prevent such an outcome, government officials must establish a system in which it is clear who is responsible for each procedure of state-run projects, from the initial approval of the project through each phase of work.
To be able to assume this responsibility, government officials must be free of political pressure. "We should introduce a system by which we can reassess project viability after it begins, to allow us to withdraw from a project which has already started if it has problems," said Kim Jae-hyung, the director of the Center for Public Investment Management and Research at the Korea Development Institute.
"This would prevent politicians from promoting unreasonable projects," Mr. Kim said.
"In developed countries, the progress of a project is recorded in detail and is open to the public," said Kim Hun-dong, an official at the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice. "The public is as good as investing in state-run projects, since the projects are funded by taxes. It is absurd that the public is not allowed to know if a project is overrunning its budget."
Government officials should listen to these recommendations.
The writer is a reporter with the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Ye-ri