An inbuilt inefficiency
There tends to be redundancies in government positions because the current civil service recruitment system is administered annually on a fixed quota, and civil servants are legally guaranteed job security until retirement. For example, in the upper category of a government organization, there are 100 grade five employees, 75 from the fourth rank, 50 from the third, 25 from the second and 12 in the highest first rank. As people move up on the hierarchic ladder, the pyramid gradually turns into a vertical form.
Redundant work forces reduce administrative efficiency and productivity. More tax expenditures are needed to finance salaries, pensions and welfare for government employees. The burden goes up when employees in the higher levels increase. The higher one goes up the hierarchy, the more insecure he or she feels about promotions and jobs. As a result, those civil servants are tempted to use their authority to widen and lengthen their scope for holding onto a job.
Umbrella public institutions are expanded or created as a safety net for our civil servants when they reach retirement age. If public enterprises largely serve as cushy homes for retiring government employees, they can hardly be reformed or privatized. In order to enlarge such organizations, government employees churn out more regulations.
Superfluity in employees and old-boy networks built around the alumni of the civil service have led to laxity in our bureaucracy. Instead of the most capable people getting ahead, it is arranged so that everyone gets an equal opportunity in promotions. It is customary that after working three to four years in one office, a government employee applies for overseas training for about two years before being recruited by another office. These shifts help to hide exact office quotas and job openings. The seniors put in charge of an office do not attempt to question wrongdoings or the poor work of their predecessors. As result, the bureaucratic society stays viable, intact and unchanging in its inefficient form. South Korea ranks among the lowest - 110th among 160 countries - in reviews of efficacy of government spending and transparency of public policies by the Institute for Management Development and World Economic Forum.
Moreover, nothing can compensate for the waste and inefficiency in a system that breeds superfluity in government offices. Civil servants are paid less than employees in the private sector. But they enjoy other enviable perks - a job for life, generous pensions and subsidized studies overseas. Over 300,000 young people prepare for the rigorous civil service test because of these rewards. It is a pity that many lives are wasted poring over administrative textbooks to get secure jobs in the public field instead of applying resources and talent in more creative and productive works.
The United States, United Kingdom and European countries all recruited government employees through tests. For South Korea, this elite cadre helped to drive the country out of war and through industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s. The system worked well in advanced societies until the 1960s. But most countries underwent reorganization and reforms in their public sectors due to policy failures and corruption that led to fiscal crises in the 1980s. Governments began to opt for a private recruitment system for public service.
Countries cope differently, but the direction of public-sector reform has been the same: open recruitment in the civil service except for the police, disciplinary and defense offices; abolishment of job guarantees until retirement; and flexibility in the civil service. The executive branch can only be politically neutral when all the people working in it are recruited through transparent means. There should be no difference between the public and private sector. The public sector should learn and apply innovative management styles from the private sector to raise productivity and efficiency.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a fellow of the Korea Development Institute.
By Kim Jae-hoon