Exam is not the problem

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Exam is not the problem


Lee Seon-woo

The shock wave from the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry has been far-reaching. The public has been appalled and alarmed by the amateurish and incompetent response by the Coast Guard and administrative authorities. The anxiety extended to a general questioning of the efficacy of Korea’s bureaucracy and its recruitment system. The government announced it will cut the quota for civil service placements for above the fifth grade by half to break up the so-called gwanfia - a portmanteau of the Korean word for officials and mafia - and golden parachute practices that breed a vicious cycle of collusion between the public and private sector.

Before trying to fix a problem, however, it is reasonable to think through the causes and come up with a solution based on those findings.

Why has the government come up with the idea of scaling down the recruitment quota through the civil service exam? Critics of the state-administered exam system point out that senior posts in the Coast Guard are filled by people who had little experience in that field but gained promotions through bureaucratic and political connections. They have a point. The most rewarding high-level positions are dominated by people who have ascended the bureaucratic ladder after passing the state exam. One test score has guaranteed them a lucrative career that otherwise would have required a high level of expertise and experience in a field. This has been possible because bureaucrats have built a self-serving and exclusive club for themselves based on their year of admission to the civil service.

However, the current gosi, or annual government exam for civil service, is problematic not because it exists but because of how it has been managed. Bureaucrats lack professionalism because they must shift posts. Senior officials should be placed and rated based on their professionalism and capabilities, but these evaluations are not generally reflected in appointments. That was a problem.

If bureaucrats had followed the order of President Park Geun-hye at the early stage of her term and accurately recorded performance reviews for every job they carry out, they could have made headway in administrative performances. The dominance by bureaucrats with administrative backgrounds in senior posts could be eased if they were required to compete on equal footing with technocrats.

An old-boy network could be created even if more people from the private sector are recruited after they are comfortably settled in the bureaucratic community. They could pose a bigger threat because they would be better armed with professionalism and expertise in their fields. Of course, we cannot assume that people from the private sector will pick up bad habits of the bureaucratic society. But that possibility cannot be ruled out.

Many among the people who passed the lower-level state exam for seventh to ninth grade posts are intelligent and capable. They now have better opportunities to move beyond the ceiling of the seventh rank. They have the experience and know-how to compete with their peers who have passed the higher-level test. There are many who have career experience in private fields. The routes to higher government posts should be widened so that good human resources could be put to better use. Government officials would be more motivated to develop themselves and devote themselves to their work if upward mobility widens.

The U.S. government recruits mid-rank federal jobs after testing college graduates in project management internship programs. France chooses middle ranks from among graduates of the National School of Administration. These systems all serve one purpose: incubating administrative specialists and leaders.

The senior civil service exam has one irrefutable merit: It offers hope and equal opportunity for all aspiring young people who want to devote themselves to public service. The problem is in the people, not the system. Bureaucrats should be inspired to change themselves.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor in the public administration department at Korea National Open University.

By Lee Seon-woo

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