A big personnel problem

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A big personnel problem

Kim Ho-gyun
The author is a professor of public administration at Chonnam National University.

More than two months have passed since the Yoon Suk-yeol administration took power. The economy is faced with high interest rates, high inflation, and high exchange rates. Yoon’s appointments for major positions in the government have been criticized for going against the principle of fairness he championed. The personnel issue — a litmus test for the success of the Yoon administration — will have a significant impact on state administration.

Max Weber, a German sociologist who contributed greatly to the development of public administration theories, argued that whether in the public sector — such as the central or local governments — or in the private sector, bureaucracy is the most effective and efficient tool in running an organization.

To maximize the efficiency of bureaucracy, Weber stressed, selecting, promoting and appointing members of the organization should be based on objective merit rather than personal and subjective elements with political factors. To run an organization efficiently without waste, it is important to select human resources based on qualifications and capabilities.

The bureaucracy is different from the Eumseo system in the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties, where the descendants of ministers or high-ranking aristocrats who made contributions to the state were promoted without passing a nationally-administered test. Weber proposes that the element that should be emphasized in bureaucracy is “impersonality.” It means that when carrying out work in an organization, one should not be led by personal emotions. In other words, the person engaged in public administration should treat the recipients of public service without discrimination, regardless of personal relationships. Administration should be executed by strictly separating public and private affairs.

Let’s look at an example of the performance and impersonality discussed above. Lately, many cases of persons close to President Yoon being recruited by the presidential office in Yongsan were addressed. When criticized by the opposition Democratic Party (DP), the presidential office responded, “What is the problem when they helped out during the campaign and their abilities have been verified?”

These days, as getting into public service is very hard in Korea, applicants study very hard to pass the civil service exam. Many people from all walks of life applying for lower or higher positions in the government are vying to pursue public careers. While “fairness” and “common sense” were mentioned as keywords that greatly contributed to President Yoon’s rise to power, it is doubtful that the people studying for the civil service exam will find the latest appointments fair.

Recent polls back up this idea. The approval rating for the president’s performance has recently seen a so-called “dead cross,” with negative evaluations exceeding positive. Although the rate of decline in approval ratings has slowed a bit, the drive of the new president is likely to fail, as the public is deserting him.

What caused the phenomenon seems to be complex. Analysts attribute it to Yoon’s high-handed appointments of ministers and disastrous personnel decisions, a lack of ability to respond to the economic crisis, a first lady being accompanied by her personal friends, and his controversial “doorstep” interviews on his way to work. They all contributed to the decline. Overall, it is no exaggeration to say that the fairness issue in personnel affairs is the biggest problem.

Since the mid-1990s, the “public value theory” emerged in American public administration academia. Professor Mark Moore of Harvard University and Professor Barry Bozeman of Arizona State University are notable scholars of public value. They explain that the public sector, including government organizations, is needed to “realize public values.” They emphasize that public value is created when public managers “create products wanted by the people based on effectiveness, efficiency, and social equity.”

By applying their theory to the personnel issue, it is possible to estimate the direction the public wants from the government. First, people want to see fair and balanced appointments regardless of region, academic background, gender, religion, or age. Second, the people want the government to show greater interest and consideration for the socially weak and minority groups. There are many more positions the president will fill in the future. The people are watching how well he does it.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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