[Viewpoint] On leave and joining a cozy network

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[Viewpoint] On leave and joining a cozy network

Jokingly, bureaucrats are called “government stock rice” and private sector workers “market rice.” The government stock rice is less competitive in the market because of its poorer taste. It is supplied to soldiers and people receiving government subsidies. Although it is grown the same way, the government stock rice is stored in warehouses for a long time, so it loses its taste. To refurbish the image of that commodity, the government decided to change the name to “national rice” in 2008. The taste, of course, did not improve with the new name, because the storage and supply methods were not changed.

The idea of making public servants taste how private companies operate was raised during the Kim Dae-jung administration. In 2001, the government introduced a system for civil servants to take leave to work in the private sector and see what fierce market competition is.

Under the system, public servants are allowed to take two years of leave with the possibility of an extension. If it had worked as planned, it would have been a great system to introduce competitiveness to the administration and stimulate civil servants. It’s like opening the windows of government rice warehouses for ventilation.

But the system became nothing more than special treatment for civil servants because government officials have always been overlords of private companies in the Korean hierarchy. Universities, research institutes and companies paid high salaries to the civil servants who came to them for an excursion tour of duty. The bureaucrats enjoyed the system, and many of them who failed to get a promotion used it as a refuge. The companies calculated that special treatment to the civil servants in their companies would eventually be “repaid.” It was mutually beneficial, both sides thought.

Asked about his experience at a private company, one bureaucrat said, “I miss it very much. There was not much to do, but my salary was suddenly very high. I don’t like working in the government anymore.”

One municipal bureaucrat failed to adjust to his life after returning to officialdom. He was nostalgic about his experience at a company and could not get back into the routine of his office. Eventually, he was tagged as useless and resigned. The system was poisonous to him.

Another public official currently working at a university talked about his experience. “I only go to my office three times a week,” the central government officer said. “No one bothers me. When I am there, I just have to write a simple report, so there is no burden on me.”

He is one of the elite who passed the civil servants’ examination, but he apparently did not want to learn by facing too much competition.

The cases of the two public servants are my personal observations and there must be some who have benefited greatly from the system and become incredibly competitive. But the National Assembly’s audit of executive branch agencies this year still showed special treatment for incumbent officials, demonstrating that the system is being abused and producing lazy officials.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security faced the most criticism. An Education Ministry official received more than 151 million won ($128,200) in salary from a private research institute during his leave, 78 percent higher than his public sector pay. According to Representative Kim Yoo-jung of the Democratic Party, 90 officials from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology found jobs at institutes related to their regular jobs from 2008 until last August under this system.

Retired officials are also receiving special treatment. Of the 103 senior officials of the Education Ministry who retired over the past five years, 24 found jobs at offices under the ministry or at universities. Some lawmakers criticized universities who hired them, accusing them of looking for shields against reform measures aimed at schools.

Some officials of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security earned income from jobs outside the ministry when they should have been on the job at their permanent offices. According to Grand National Representative Kim Tae-won, 559 people earned more than 260 million won from 2009 to last June by giving lectures at government offices and companies.

The examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The situation is probably more serious at the Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which are in charge of many economic and state-run projects, and at the Ministry of Justice.

Ministries and local governments allow their employees to take leave to work in the private sector, but there is no oversight in the system. The government doesn’t even have accurate number of the public servants on leave under the system.

Governments have more to lose than gain because the abuses allow the private sector to create connections. This is not a system to improve the taste of government stock rice, and there is no reason to keep it.

*The writer is an editor of social affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Young-yu
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