Use caution in test reformOur senior bureaucracy is led by officials recruited through the civil service examination. Of the 1,500 senior bureaucrats from grade three to vice ministerial grade one, 71 percent were selected through the civil service exam. Successful candidates form alumni groups according to their recruiting year. Those passing the senior exam start from grade 5, and unless a problem occurs, move up the ladder to higher ranks according to tradition. They populate the plum civil service jobs and form a nucleus of elites within the government. Most senior-level officials, including vice ministers, passed the exam. The civil service exam, which has long been chastised for its aggravating rigidity and for undermining productivity in the government, will be reformed for the first time in its 61-year history. The government will rename the exam “Public Recruitment Process for Fifth-Rank Civil Servants” and will fill a part of the quota with experts from the private sector. Under the reform proposal, a certain number of experts will be recruited through open competition after screening application requirements and interviews. They will start from grade 5 together with those recruited through the test.
The government hopes to break the exclusiveness of the bureaucracy and hone its professionalism through open competition. Experts from certain fields can breathe new life into the hierarchy. Government appointments have revolved around elite state exam club members, undermining the competitiveness and efficiency of the civil service. The open competition system will also ease the obsession with state exams. Many students squander their college years and years after graduation preparing for the state exam, hoping to land a prestigious job for life.
Yet the exam has generated many success stories and given hope to many from underprivileged backgrounds. In the Joseon Dynasty, the state exam was a chance for success. Many talented people selected through the exam have played an important role in the democratic and economic advancement in our society. But gone are the days when passing one test can secure a lifetime job. Competition drives all societies.
France too is now debating the reform of its elite training college for top civil servants, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. President Nicolas Sarkozy, leading the campaign to overhaul the “School of Power,” plans to widen admissions at the school and eliminate automatic access to top jobs upon graduation to “prevent the government turning into an elitist group.”
For the new system to gain support, fairness must be guaranteed. The requirements - qualifications, degrees and expertise in a certain field - demand someone fortunate enough to pursue higher education. It could stimulate wasteful competition for expertise. Cronyism and other corruption may stain the new process, which should be used to open doors for talented people studying under difficult conditions.