[Outlook]Upending the civil sector

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[Outlook]Upending the civil sector

‘Many at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance must go to retraining sessions. This includes senior civil officers at the ministry. Let’s think of it as the pain of this era.”
That’s what Kang Man-soo, the minister of strategy and finance, said at a conference of customs officials at the Incheon Airport Customs office on April 3. Some may wonder why we think of retraining sessions as a painful experience. In fact, they are called “education” sessions but they refer to the process of sending unneeded civil workers to a training institute for a transition period.
As the head of the organization, Minister Kang didn’t want to let his people go. He created seven task forces that didn’t exist before, and were very likely unnecessary, to accommodate his workers. President Lee Myung-bak found out about this plan from a news report in the Joong-Ang Ilbo and became furious. The task force plan was cancelled, and those who were ready to join the groups instead had to pack and go to a training center.
Minister Kang described the retraining as the pain of this era, showing how sorry he is for not protecting his people from being fired. Even though Kang has been working with President Lee since Lee was mayor of Seoul, Kang doesn’t seem to fully understand the president. Many say that a leader should embrace all his workers, but Lee is not that type of leader. It is said that people who reported to Lee didn’t like him much. Lee doesn’t care much about building good networks or bonds with other people but he prioritizes capacities and results.
When Lee denounced the Ministry of Strategy and Finance for creating new task forces, he didn’t use euphemisms. He asked, “What good can such teams do when they consist of those who have been told to walk away?” He even added a sharp comment, saying, “You would create task forces to keep excessive manpower and call private companies and ask them to hire this or that person. Please don’t do that any more. That is bad. Very, very bad.”
The 18th legislative election campaigns created more conflict and discord than ever, and now the elections are over. The result is, as everybody knows, that the Grand National Party won a thin parliamentary majority. This isn’t bad at all, considering that GNP members close to Park Geun-hye, the former chairwoman of the party, bolted from the GNP shortly before the elections.
The New York Times wrote that the election results were bad news for North Korean leaders. The election results are bad news not only for Kim Jong-il but also for South Korean civil workers. Because President Lee won a landslide victory in the presidential election and now the general election results are also in his favor, the president won’t hesitate to show what he is made of.
“When their retraining sessions are over, ensure that those who left the ministry don’t return,” President Lee said, making clear his firm stance on the matter.
In the early phase of every former administration, talk about reform in the public sector was everywhere but dissipated after a certain period of time. But things look different this time. President Lee said, “The government must not try to solve everything on its own as it used to do. The government must leave something to the private sector if that is best.”
Civil servants probably have to take his remark seriously.
It is said that President Lee has bad memories of civil workers, particularly civil workers at public financial institutions. He shows that in the way he handles personnel affairs. The biggest difference between the incumbent government and former ones is the creation of the Financial Services Commission. The commission handles financial policies and oversees financial institutions, the first government agency of its kind. The president thought very carefully when employing the head of this body. It would have been easy if he had wanted to hire someone from the government because there are a number of suitable people who have handled financial policies. However, President Lee was sure that a person from the private sector should take the position. He was determined that this would be so because he believed that the custom of having bureaucrats in the public financial sector who wielded power as rulers must be changed.
In the end, Jun Kwang-woo was chosen as the FSC chairman. During the presidential briefing by the Financial Services Commission, President Lee said, “Please don’t become like civil workers.”
The president told a person who had just become a civil worker not to become like civil workers. That reveals a negative impression of civil workers. The president ordered those who have desirable customs and habits not to become like people with bad behavior and customs. Rather they should stick to their own convictions. The president could have chosen a bureaucrat as the agency’s vice-chairman when he picked the chairman from the private sector. But the president didn’t cede. He chose Lee Chang-yong, a professor at Seoul National University who shares Lee’s ideas and thoughts, to be the FSC vice-chairman. This reveals how deep President Lee’s distrust of government officials involved in the financial sector really is.
How many changes are in store for civil workers in the next five years? It will be interesting to find out.
Will the changes be drastic or minor? Or, will they remain as they are now?

*The writer is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shim Sang-bok
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