[Viewpoint]A proper use of tax money

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[Viewpoint]A proper use of tax money

I obstructed the workings of the Seoul city government yesterday, although not necessarily with any malicious intent. Let’s just say I was doing a spot of anonymous consumer testing.

I dialed the Seoul city government’s toll-free 120 number. It connects you to Dasan Call, the city’s one-stop call center.

In my first call, I asked the representative why the service was named “Dasan Call.” He asked me to hold and finally returned after one minutes and 10 seconds.

“Dasan is the pen name of Jeong Yak-yong [a Joseon-era philosopher]. The Seoul city government picked this name for the Seoul Call Center to show its commitment to delivering sincere and exceptional services to citizens based on Dasan’s teachings. Dasan’s philosophy is that the people are the basis of the nation and administration of regions around the nation must be reformed consistently.”

My playfulness began to kick in on my second call. “When was the zoo inside the Changgyeong Palace shut down?” I asked. After a minute and a half, the representative who took my call said she would have to investigate and call me back.

She asked for my mobile phone number and contacted me after about four minutes. “I have contacted the Changgyeong Palace and found out that restoration work at the palace took place from 1984 to 1986. The animals were moved to the Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon in 1983. Therefore, it is more accurate to say that the zoo was shut down in 1983.”

I felt contrite for testing the two reps, but frankly I was very satisfied for having paid taxes. I felt the same way when I visited the state-run health center in my neighborhood last year and received help from the free clinic to quit smoking, although I was only able to kick the habit for three years.

Everyone has probably had a frustrating experience while calling a government office or a conglomerate. For example, disconnecting a mobile phone service is excruciating. After a long struggle with the cold mechanical voice of an audience response system, a live person finally appears on the other end of the line.

By that time, I have no energy left to complain. And what’s even worse is that the person is probably a young non-regular worker who has no responsibility or authority to solve my problem. There is actually no point in complaining.

The Dasan Call service, which answers calls 24 hours for 365 days a year, opened in September last year. In its 17 months, it has received 4.4 million calls. On average, 13,200 calls are handled through the center daily.

According to a 2006 survey, it takes an average of 67 minutes for a Seoulite to find a phone number and call the Seoul city government to make an inquiry and get an answer. But now the procedure takes three minutes.

This is revolutionary. The service is possible because 29,000 information files on the Seoul city government are stored in a digitalized base for easy access.

When the question is unusual or technical, the call center staff search the Internet or ask the relevant government office to provide an answer. The service is available in English, Japanese and Chinese and video conference calling for the hearing impaired.

When the lines are not too busy, the staff also speak to elderly people who are living alone so that they can hear a friendly voice.

With the unprecedented economic crisis, there is also a deeper meaning to the Seoul city government’s revolution through phones.

In September last year, 949 calls were made to the center seeking assistance in basic livelihood needs. The number grew to 1,468 in November and 1,644 in December. Last month, it reached 3,301, more than three times the volume in January last year.

Between Feb. 1 to 18, 3,858 calls have already been received about hardships such as medical bills and minimum standards of living as a result of unemployment, bankruptcy and companies going out of business.

According to the call center, a housewife in Hwagok-dong called in a few days ago with what is becoming an all-too-familiar story. She said her unemployed husband rarely comes home. She suffers from back problems, so it is difficult for her to find a job. The family’s economic circumstances mean that they haven’t been able to pay their rent of 300,000 won for a few months, so the landlord cut off their electricity.

The call center rep contacted the Hwagok-dong community service center in western Seoul to see if they could help. The caller received rice and instant noodles and the community center helped her find a job as a cleaner. This enabled the family to pay their bills and rent.

I do not need to be on the receiving end of help myself to feel the satisfaction of paying taxes. The satisfaction is actually greater when tax money is used properly to help people who are in great need. Dasan 120 is a wonderful example.

*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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