[Viewpoint]Truly civil, truly serving
Civil servants have changed. Whether you go to your local dong or district office, you will find polite employees who even answer the phone in a pleasant manner. They work hard, too. Many civil servants go to work before dawn and stay until late in the evening. Some employees at the central government complex in downtown Seoul even work on holidays. To be sure, they must have families they want to spend time with and personal matters to take care of and, naturally, would also like to take a rest as others do.
Outwardly, they have changed, but I am not sure about the inside. I was criticized severely by civil servants after I wrote an article that raised the issue of civil servants who take advantage of so-called training programs as a perk after long service, which amounts to receiving their monthly paychecks without doing any work. I also commented on the fact that they had protested against revision of the civil servant pension law, fearing that they would receive lower pensions.
Their criticism against me included: “How long do we have to suffer with our low salaries?” and “We undergo training to make way for our juniors before our retirement, so your criticism is unfair.” They even condemned me, saying, “The reporter should first change his biased views.”
On reflection, I think I wrote the article without clearly understanding the joys and sorrows of civil servants.
However, I still cannot wholly agree with them. Selfish remarks by civil servants made during a time of financial crisis do not endear me to their cause.
In fact, civil servants are not greatly affected by the cold winds of the economy. Their salaries are not cut or delayed, and as a rule, they can work until the age of 60. They say they have low salaries, but it is around 90 percent of what private companies pay. Still, they expressed dissatisfaction when the government tried to freeze next year’s wages and change the pension law.
A few days ago, there was a rush of 900 applicants when the Ministry of Public Administration and Security tried to hire 30 university graduates as administrative interns. Although such an internship was only a temporary position that paid less than 1 million won ($692) a month, many of the applicants were graduates of prestigious universities or had master’s degrees.
The selfish statements of civil servants must sound strange to family breadwinners or unemployed youths who have to earn a living by offering their labor at the early morning day job market for just a few ten-thousand-won bills per day.
Civil servants are also complaining of feeling “uncomfortable”: The president bawls them out, complaining that they “do not work with speed,” while the press is on their case, condemning them for holding on to their “iron rice bowls” at any cost. I can understand some of their feelings. A high-ranking civil servant in the central government said, “It is hard to adapt to policies that the former Roh Moo-hyun administration promoted 180 degrees in the opposite direction.” He also said, “My heart burned when I was called a ‘soulless person.’”
It is especially hard for civil servants who deal with real estate, education, welfare and North Korea - areas in which the government’s policies have made a complete U-turn. When U.S. President George W. Bush came to power eight years ago, he started what was dubbed an “ABC (Anything But Clinton)” policy that ignored, among other things, the North Korea policy of the Clinton administration. In Korea, there are “ABR’s, Anything But Roh” policies that took a different path from the Roh administration. It seems to be too much for civil servants who are not used to change.
Of course, civil servants work hard, too. Recently they have been on their toes, always on standby to be summoned to the National Assembly due to next year’s budget plan. The current situation they are facing is more urgent because the president will receive the year’s reports by government ministries this month, instead of in January or February, as in the past.
With their minds and bodies already tired from the Lee administration’s “early bird” and “no holidays” regime, the reports to the president on top of the crippled operation of the National Assembly as the year nears its end is killing civil servants.
What is really important, however, is how they work. Productivity does not increase just because you work longer hours. It is important to think hard and look back on what policies are truly for the people, and continuously execute them. That should be the substance of change. The 44th U.S. president-elect, Barack Obama, emphasizes “change.” That is right. Korean civil servants are capable of change. Courtesy is a basic step, but it isn’t change. True change should start from the mindset and methods of work.
Hwang Nong-moon, a professor at Seoul National University and author of “Immersion,” said, “It is difficult to work twice as well as others, if you work hard. But if you think hard, you can do 10 times, 100 times or even 1,000 times better.”
This is something we should remember. Work hard, but not with our bodies only. Policies should be formulated after thorough and careful consideration, so we won’t have to face “ABMB - Anything But (Lee) Myung-Bak” policies in the future.
*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Young-yu