[Outlook]A change in attitudeThe answer to the question of whether a government should be big or small differs for each country. In general, conservatives call for the minimization of government interference in social issues and prefer a compact and efficient government size. On the other hand, progressives want the government to be big enough to guarantee sufficient social benefits to the underprivileged and provide abundant rewards to public officials.
The Kim Dae-jung administration was progressive in nature but it reduced the number of civil servants by nearly 30 percent. Despite its progressive tendency, it recognized the need to reduce the government in order to overcome the national crisis at the time. The Roh Moo-hyun government, on the other hand, has expanded the size of government, concentrating more on textbook reforms than on efforts to boost efficiency. Such a policy orientation does little to solve the problems our nation faces today. The socially underprivileged are getting more and more unsatisfied, while major policy issues are being ignored. The government’s ability to handle issues such as the real estate market and education system has become weaker.
It is up to the people to decide what kind of a government they want. If another progressive president takes over, he or she will try to expand the government size and budget. If a conservative government is launched, it will reduce the government and exercise tighter control over any expansion in the public domain.
For us, the answer to the question of government size seems already decided. Our government in the large sense, including its influence in terms of budget, staff number and range of authority, is a very big one compared to those in the United States or Europe. In particular, the government sub-agencies in our country are very large. Only a few countries in Europe and Japan have bigger government sub-agencies than us.
The problem is, leaving the dispute of size aside, how to change our government’s DNA to evolve into a top-class OECD nation. The first thing to change is our government’s inability to solve policy issues. Until now, the higher ranks of the government have been busy only serving political committees, and every minister has research institutes pestering them with unnecessary tasks. Thus, our government officials’ ability to develop policy and expertise on social issues has dwindled while a sense of responsibility has also weakened.
Most social issues that arise today are ones that have never been experienced before. The issues of promoting our science and technology, preparing for an aging society and managing the unpredictable North Korea situation are all such that they cannot be handled by just copying and following the steps of other advanced countries. In order to compete with the major economies, it is imperative that our government develops its issue-solving ability. We need a competent government that can efficiently and flexibly deal with our national issues.
The second answer is for our government to win the trust of the people and to get rid of sources of social strife. We have seen how our government’s inability to win the trust of the people has led to an aggravation of our social problems.
According to a recent survey on the public perspective, the low level of trust in our government is such that it would be embarrassing if it became known to other countries.
Moreover, many of our government officials tend to show an insincere attitude in managing policy. They seem more intent on pleasing the fickle policy changes of the administration and on advocating their interests instead of truly serving the people. In the case of advanced Western countries, government officials with expertise and political neutrality play a “buffer zone,” coming up with creative ideas to prevent public friction and minimizing the impact of a change in administration regardless of whether the new government is progressive or conservative. In contrast, most high-ranking officials in Korea are more intent on pleasing the administration and catering to their own ambitions.
Lee Hwang, one of the most revered Confucian scholars of the Joseon Dynasty, once said that a public official should refrain from the joys of life. The “joys” of public officials ― expanding their numbers, exercising control under the pretext of assisting society and intimidating the public ― could mean pain and sorrow for the people.
A government’s loyalty to the people should be measured by the standards of the public’s satisfaction and the trust it gains from the people. There can be no progress in our government if it consists of only a small number of quick and ready political supporters.
*The writer is a professor of public administration at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Dal-gon