[Viewpoint] This elitism is half-baked

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[Viewpoint] This elitism is half-baked

With our public servants indulging in self-serving and unfair practices in pursuit of titles and social status, this country is a long way from becoming an advanced society. And as these public figures go about setting the wrong example, the young also race to climb the social ladder in any way they see fit.

It’s surely a huge temptation to dominate people and get access to enormous perks. The monthly pay package for public office may not be as large as those offered at large corporations, but other benefits such as state subsidies for overseas studies and generous pensions are great attractions.

An office in the Korean government guarantees its occupant a master’s role. In the case of a diplomatic post, elite status is assured.

But half-baked elitism is a recipe for shallowness and hypocrisy.

Despite refined language and interpersonal behavior, a diplomat has a hard time mingling with the common folk, a trait shared by his counterparts in other government offices. Regardless of social prestige, civil servants should serve the public interest and the people in the name of justice.

Yet most are busy pursuing their own selfish interests. The Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan Jr. claimed that public choices are simple aggregations of private decision-makers.

State civil service exams have long been channels to sift through and promote talent. But all systems have loopholes that can be abused.

Many believe that a system, when constructed well, can be a panacea for all problems. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security tried to root out elements of favoritism, nepotism and other unfairnesses in the hiring of public officials. But that won’t be the end of the problem.

A disproportionate power structure in public offices can ruin governance in its entirety. Famous critics of institutions, Michel Foucault and Ivan Illich, argued that hospitals make patients because they apply general remedies from the diagnosis of the sometimes illusory surface and fail to note the deeper truth or illness inside.

Although most U.S. federal civil servants are now chosen through a competitive examination of their backgrounds, education and work experience, about 10 years ago the U.S. government chose officers through public service aptitude tests.

The exams tested analytical and problem-solving abilities rather than the capacity to memorize. In the final stage, candidates stood before an interview panel, which didn’t have access to their background information, and they were tested solely on their abilities and potential for public service.

The federal government has long had a special recruitment system to attract private experts. Its nonwritten competitive examination had its hiccups but is now working smoothly.

But the practice of hiring of professionals with experience, for the purpose of engaging experienced manpower from various fields to broaden a narrow-minded bureaucracy, often fails to convince the public. Prejudice and preference are bound to influence the selecting panel, especially if it is comprised in a way to bestow advantage on certain candidates.

In filling a special position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for which the foreign minister’s daughter applied, two high-level diplomats - obviously close to their boss - sat on the interview panel. Job qualifications were bent to benefit the preferred candidate. No yardstick of fairness was working in this case.

Recruitment in this country is done by heavyweights and spear carriers. A select number of people exert enormous power in the shadow of the top decision-maker, and they’re followed by faithful servants. The rest are superfluous.

When filling a job that requires experience, the Foreign Ministry should appoint a three-person interview panel with an official from another office, a corporate executive and a professor, and let them test candidates without knowing anything about their background. A university administrative director, a veteran and an honest diplomat, or another outside expert, can also do the interviewing. Candidates should be required to submit references from their schools or previous jobs. Candidates should be evaluated on all their faults and merits free from personal feelings.

Most of all, we must do away with the self-inflation associated with public jobs and its trapping of high social status. Let’s pull the privileges off the shoulders of cabinet members and bring elite bureaucrats down from their high horses. And let’s throw away the harmful remnants and legacy of a class-ridden society so that we can march with lighter feet toward an advanced and equal society.

*The writer is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Kwang-woong
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