Shuffling the reshuffle

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Shuffling the reshuffle

President Lee Myung-bak has been fiddling with the idea of reshuffling his cabinet for two months now. After the crushing defeat of the ruling party in June local elections, the president vowed to breathe new air into the governance structure. But as he marked time, the by-elections were conducted on Wednesday. The president’s promise is now being doubted as cabinet ministers awkwardly carry on with their jobs.

Now that all elections are done, the government must come out of its fog and return to serious business. First of all, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan clearly expressed his intention to step down. The prime minister wanted to resign to take responsibility after the government’s proposal to revise the Sejong City plan failed to be approved by the National Assembly. President Lee’s aides have been publicly divided over the prime minister’s fate, with some demanding that he step down while others defended him. In the meantime, the prime minister has lost face, and governance is in disarray.

The situation is worse down the chain of command. Workers in government offices sit idly at their desks without knowing when their bosses will be replaced. The president’s ambitious pro-working class policies cannot gain impetus due to lack of passion among working-level officials. The government sits on a pile of important issues such as a possible Korea-China free trade agreement, the future of North Korea policy in the wake of the Cheonan sinking, and confusion in education policy due to a series of rebellious moves by progressive school superintendents.

But working-level officials naturally put less effort into these issues because they are bound to be reworked if ministers change. They are fiddling while Rome burns, and it will be the public who pays the price. Officials are refraining from trotting out new ideas, saving them for later in hopes of making a good impression on new ministers. But they are not entirely to blame.

This is not the first time the president has dilly-dallied on appointments. It took him more than a month to change three ministers for failing to address the controversy over U.S. beef imports that triggered the mad cow scare and nationwide protests.

Last year, when the ruling party was defeated in a by-election in April, a cabinet reshuffle took place four months later. Prudence in making appointments is a virtue, but procrastination after hinting of a reshuffle is a lapse that can undermine and jeopardize governance. The longer the president takes to name replacements, the bigger the discomfort he inflicts on the people involved. There is no time to waste. The clock is ticking.
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