Reshaping personnel management

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Reshaping personnel management

Lee Geun-myeon

The author is a former Minister of Personnel Management.

Various political appointments are being made at government institutions and public corporations towards the end of the term of President Moon Jae-in while most of the public’s attention is centered on the presidential race. A former senior official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) was named as a standing board member at a government-run financial entity. The appointment of a presidential aide was withdrawn upon controversy after he was named to head a sovereign wealth fund managing people’s tax money.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs already under fire for questionable appointments caused more controversy by naming a senior presidential secretary as the ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a post that requires international expertise. The Ministry of Justice has been more blatant in political appointments. It has been a tradition for the outgoing president to leave appointments in public companies to the incoming government. But the administration is issuing appointments with less than four months left in Moon’s term.

Rewarding loyalists who helped win in presidential elections with seats at the government or public enterprises was some sort of a ritual for both the liberal and conservative parties when they take power. The opposition is critical of such legacy acts the same way once it becomes the ruling power. The practice has somehow been taken for granted. Still, there should be some kind of constraint to random and irrelevant appointments. There must be specific guidelines so that a president of single five-year term does not abuse his or her authority in appointments.

First of all, neutrality in appointments in government employees must be ensured. Politics and public administration must be separated so that government employees can play their role faithfully. Bureaucrats line up and indulge politicians because of their impact on their promotion. They become watchful and complacent since policy direction changes whenever a new president comes in. The system in appointments should be aligned to ensure government employees serve the people, not politicians, so that they do not become scapegoats for past decisions of the governing power.

Secondly, managerial posts at public institutions must be headed by experts, not by those who had contributed to political gains. Performance and efficiency of public institutions are lagging far behind private enterprises. Seating irrelevant figures as heads of public corporations running on people’s tax money can cause serious losses and harms to taxpayers. A fair appointment system must be established through revisions in the related laws to fend off political wind in public enterprises.

Thirdly, public oversight is necessary. Presidential authority over appointments must come under the common rule of democratic republic that defines that sovereignty lies in the people. The public must keep watch on presidential appointments so that 7,000 public offices under the influence of president do not serve the ego of the inner circle. The scope of appointments under presidential power must be accurately defined and supervised to end the poor tradition in appointments for public offices.

If the longstanding tradition cannot be easily cut off, an advisory board could be set up for the president to act as an official channel to recruit people who contributed to the electing victory of the president. We could benchmark the U.S. case of the Plum Book that shows presidentially appointed positions in the federal government to act as the transparent list that can both respect and check the presidential authority in appointments. Such transparency can lessen the burden on the president who can instead focus attention on other state affairs. Independence of appointments in public offices is, therefore, essential.

The next president must be able to present a solution to the poor tradition of revolving-door and parachute appointments in public offices. Otherwise, the presidential authority in appointments will go on abusing jobs supported by taxation. The new president must return civilian rights by reforming the appointment and management of senior public jobs.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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