[FOUNTAIN]Eliminating ‘armchair’ bureaucracy

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[FOUNTAIN]Eliminating ‘armchair’ bureaucracy

“Armchair bureaucrats” refers to civil servants who ignore the realistic aspects and make policy decisions based only on documents.
Why wouldn’t bureaucrats want to leave their armchairs? Political science scholars Larry M. Lane and James F. Wolf explain this from the point of view of office culture. If government agencies put too much emphasis on achievement and results, federal workers are more likely to come up with armchair bureaucratic solutions.
In this environment, civil servants are compelled to achieve something, and they become immersed in work. The bureaucrats enjoy work, and they believe they can prove themselves only by working harder. That’s what happened to Korean bureaucrats during the period of rapid growth.
But putting too much energy into work can discourage criticism. Civil servants may feel their decisions are always right, and that self-righteousness can narrow their field of vision. Taking public opinion into account, for example, may feel like an unnecessary drag. Instead of considering the details, they want to create new projects and pursue them right away.
Mr. Lane and Mr. Wolf point out that in an extreme case, a good purpose might justify improper means. But civil servants feel that they are charged with a mission to “work for the benefit of the people.” If that vision collides with reality, they will be criticized as “armchair bureaucrats.”
A new license plate design was introduced nationwide at the beginning of 2004. The Ministry of Construction and Transportation made the decision in only 12 days, and the haste in handling the design change is a perfect example of “armchair bureaucracy.”
Many complained that the new design was “out of fashion,” but the ministry defended it as necessary to incorporate the newly established car registration system. The ministry virtually shut out public opinion in the process of decision-making. It tried to cover up its rough-and-ready method in the name of a good purpose.
Later, the ministry admitted it neglected to seek public opinion and incorporate it into the design. While replacing the license plate might have been a good idea, failing to listen to the public has disgraced the transportation ministry. How can we make civil servants use their energy to run around instead of sitting at their desks?

by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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