[OUTLOOK]How bureaucrats work

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[OUTLOOK]How bureaucrats work

The Korean government is being criticized by the people because of the Kim Sun-il incident. The Korean embassy in Iraq, which is responsible for Koreans there, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that failed in handling the information the Associated Press gave in an efficient manner, have both tarnished the image of a government that stands for participation and openness.
If they couldn’t handle information and deal with crises, or failed to listen to information from outside sources, it means that the bad legacies of bureaucracy that should have been discarded are still being kept intact by the ministry. One thing that should not be overlooked in this incident is whether or not information flowed smoothly within the government.
To be more precise, was the information flow not only within the Foreign Ministry, but also with other related government offices such as the National Security Council at the Blue House and the National Intelligence Service smooth and efficient?
According to the Foreign Ministry, the problems occurred because the Foreign Ministry official who answered the phone call from the Associated Press did not inform his superiors properly about the press agency’s inquiry.
Reflecting on the experience I acquired when I briefly worked for the government, the official who answered the phone should have asked the Middle East department and given the caller an answer, or at least referred him to the Middle East department. Probably, he should have relayed the information to his superior.
The problem lies in how seriously the information was considered when it was passed on to his superiors in the bureaucratic hierarchy.
Civil servants do many things they do not have to do, and the volume of information passed on to superiors, because delegation of authority and responsibility is not properly arranged, is too great. As a result, important issues that need attention are overlooked, and important information is sometimes burried under trivia.
There is a good chance that the information about Kim’s case did not trickle up well within the Foreign Ministry because there are piles of outstanding problems and pending issues in the ministry. Information that does not make it to the top never makes its way to other organizations.
A congestion of information sometimes leads to a monopoly of information. I hope that my speculation is wrong, but if the blood called information is blocked for whatever reason, the organization will stop breathing and its body will stiffen.
If the government puts the blame on an official’s inexperienced and unfaithful attitude, similar incidents will continue to happen. The incident is not simply a matter of the attitude of an individual, but a more fundamental problem of the role and function of the government: its ability to acknowledge a problem, to share and manage information among concerned government agencies and to cope with a problem.
What matters is the way they work and communicate, and the system by which they exchange information.
The Foreign Ministry really needs to think about what is important for the country and its people, make a decision and concentrate on it. They need to reduce unnecessary work, that is weighed down by formalities and procedures. Instead of concentrating on routine business, the ministry must study in earnest how to deal with crises and provide a crisis management plan.
It should also stop appointing its staff on a rotation basis, circulating from one post to another, so that officials stop taking the attitude of “I’ll just make it through until my next transfer” in their jobs.
Whenever a new government is voted in, people talk about reform, but the authoritarian and closed attitude of bureaucracy that stands firm against reform does not change. The junior board that tries to lead reform, and the executive board which includes directors of departments do not mix well, like water and oil.
The government needs to fix not only the hardware and software of the organization, but the “peopleware” too. It is necessary to change the bureaucratic system that has a “patent for monopoly” by allowing information to flow like water, up and down as well as sideways. People need to be remodeled first of all.
The government should not just spend billions of won in tax money to diagnose and analyze the management of government offices, like the last government did in the beginning. They should make civil servants work properly.
Most government officials, including those who work in the Foreign Ministry, work “hard” day and night. But looking back on this incident, it is questionable whether they are actually working “properly.” The government can achieve great results through reform only by starting a proper program that can improve its decision-making systems so that it can carry out its functions properly.

* The writer, former chairman of the Civil Service Commission, is a professor at the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kwang-woong
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