More gains than losses
A plan to shut down district councils of metropolitan cities including Seoul and Incheon, and revise the direct election system for the districts, is being pushed forward. Furthermore, a plan to integrate the educational administrative autonomy of cities is being discussed. The Presidential Committee on Local Autonomy Development said recently that such plans were approved at a cabinet meeting. The plans are aimed at increasing the efficiency of regional administrations and minimize political influence. Local governments demand the plans be withdrawn, calling them an excuse to concentrate power at the central government and against the democratic currents of our time.
There is no textbook answer for which administrative system is appropriate for Korea’s metropolitan cities. There are conflicting theories and examples from other countries that vary based on their history and situations. Some say it is a more effective way to promote democracy to split a metropolitan city into districts, while others argue for centralized consistency in the administration of a metropolitan city.
Tokyo and London have two-tier systems. In contrast, Toronto and Barcelona operate a single-tier system. New York, Paris and Berlin have systems that are in between, which can be called 1.5-tier systems. New York City does not have district legislators and the voters only elect presidents of the five boroughs. In Berlin and Paris, voters do not elect the district heads, while they do elect the district legislative council members. They are called semi-autonomous districts. Most of the metropolitan cities around the world chose single-tier systems.
The diversity in theories and the reality on the ground is proof that the argument for promoting the effectiveness of double-tier administrative systems in metropolitan cities is unconvincing. It is more convincing to argue that an administrative system for a metropolitan city must be reformed regularly to meet the changing needs of the time.
The U.K. system of county boroughs, adopted in the late 19th century, stressed continuity in the metropolitan city’s administration. The recent discussion in Korea of a single-tier system started on the basis of the county boroughs.
New York adopted the 1.5-tier system at the end of the 19th century while Tokyo conducted experiments by adopting the two-tier system in 1947, a single-tier system in 1952 and then the two-tier system in 1975.
The United States is continuing its integration of cities and counties. Its examples show that the administrative system of a metropolitan city is a subject of experiments based on the situations at the time.
The goal of an administrative system for a city is improving the quality of life for the residents and harmonizing democracy and efficiency. The reform of the administrative systems of the metropolitan cities must have at its base an accurate analysis of the domestic and international situations.
The globalization of the economy is an international factor. The trend of stressing competition started from metropolitan cities and spread fast from there. Competitiveness indexes of major cities are used to indicate the potential of a city economy and efforts are continuously made to improve it. There is no doubt that governance, including an administrative system, is an important factor in deciding the competitiveness of a city.
There are domestic issues to be considered. The current districts have various problems. The administrative zones, populations and fiscal powers vary widely among the districts. There is a district with more than 400,000 in population, while another has less than 50,000.
The ratio of residents per public servant is sometimes five times higher in one district than another. Some districts’ fiscal independence is entirely different than others. As a result, the quality and quantity of administrative service are very varied among the districts. Metropolitan projects are frequently hindered due to conflicts between metropolitan city governments and districts.
Allowing autonomous governments within metropolitan cities is also very rare and it causes administrative inefficiency. The government ordinance cities of Japan as well as Chicago and Los Angeles are all operated through single-tier systems. In contrast, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju and Ulsan became metropolitan cities in Korea and the provinces around them are carrying out extremely ineffective administrations.
The experiment of scrapping autonomous districts inside metropolitan cities will be worth it. The people will participate more in city affairs than they do in district affairs. It is useless to worry that the single-tier system will be less democratic.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Administration.
by Kim Soon-eun