[Viewpoint]The firefighter debate
The Board of Audit and Inspection announced last week that it would enact and implement “a regulation that gives immunity to active administrative measures,” under which civil servants will not be held responsible for problems that occur in the course of performing their duties. Although we feel it came a little belatedly, it appears to be an appropriate decision considering the precarious atmosphere created by the recent financial crisis in officialdom and the financial world.
When controversy was sparked over the selling of Korea Exchange Bank for a low price, there was a “firefighter debate” between the audit agency and the organizations under inspection, such as the Ministry of Finance and Economy.
The focus of the discussion was whether a firefighter should be held responsible for damaging a flowerbed in the process of putting out a blaze.
Many people agreed with the ministry’s claim that the firefighter should not be held responsible. However, as allegations continued to crop up, the Board of Audit and Inspection and the prosecution had to launch inspections, and related people were indicted. Although it is too early to draw a conclusion, since the legal proceedings are still in progress, it is quite true that an atmosphere of self-protection is rampant in the civil service.
It is the so-called Byeon Yang-ho syndrome, named for a former director of the financial policy bureau of the Knowledge Economy Ministry.
Now that the system of “giving immunity to firefighters” is established under the law, I expected that officialdom will be able to administer national affairs with more confidence. Moreover, I look forward to seeing civil servants and financial officials try to put out the fire caused by the financial crisis in earnest. No matter how good a system may be, it can backfire if it is operated in the wrong way. There would be trouble if flowerbeds that are not in the way of the fire were stomped on. There are a few things that have to be done for the exemption system to function properly.
Most importantly, civil servants must secure procedural justification in the process of making a policy, such as restructuring or approval of loans. If things are not executed transparently under the pretext of being rushed, room can be left for misunderstandings and the resulting social strife.
Personal interest should not interfere in the process of decision-making. Considering the characteristics of Korean society, with its complex web of school, hometown and blood ties, it is very difficult to handle your duties without being bound by some relationship. This makes strong will and conviction even more necessary for a civil servant.
Even in the case of Korea Exchange Bank, suspicions were raised that the information exchanged through personal ties influenced the decision-making process that ended in the bank being sold at a low price.
It is important to create a social atmosphere where civil servants can work calmly. This is up to the political community, the president and the people. Civil servants should not be condemned like a group of criminals, but should be encouraged and complimented so that they can faithfully work as true servants of the people.
Ministers and civil servants have to spend the whole day at the National Assembly when there is a regular session. On a day when there are frequent recesses due to verbal disputes between the governing and opposition parties, they inevitably have to stand around doing nothing. The knowledge economy minister, for example, had planned to participate in the meeting of finance ministers of advanced economies to discuss countermeasures to the financial crisis. But he could not do so because of the opposition from the National Assembly; he had to stay at the Assembly the whole day. How can policies that truly reflect reality be established under such circumstances?
We must enhance not only the fairness, but also the transparency of the audit board’s inspection process. Under the current system, civil servants who have executed their duty with conviction do not have enough of a chance to explain their position when their mistakes are pointed out by inspectors.
Sometimes it is only the opinion of the inspectors that is reflected in the probe, leaving the civil servant unsatisfied. One way of recovering the reliability of such investigations would be to offer the subjects the opportunity to be present at the audit council and speak on their own behalf.
It is difficult to expect financial companies to actively support businesses suffering from a lack of liquidity with only the recent audit board measure. The Financial Supervisory Service has to swiftly come up with corresponding follow-up measures. Only then will banking institution officials work with conviction.
They have to keep in mind that many owners of small- and medium-sized companies who are begging for loans or extensions are lined up in front of the bankers, who are busy maintaining solvency right now.
*The writer, a former auditor at the Board of Audit and Inspection, is the deputy chairman of Deloitte Korea. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Pyun Ho-bum