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Breaking the “Iron Rice Bowl” Is Causing a Stir

Posted March. 17, 2007 07:43,   


Most local governments in South Korea are joining the move to evict incompetent government officials. The Seoul City government said it would weed out three percent of its total workers. However, the number is said to reach 250 to 260 on Friday, higher than the expected figure of 240.

A Seoul City government official said, “Those who do not work hard and show no changes in their new assignment through this October will be terminated from their work. The process will be completed by next April.”

The drastic change to break the “iron rice bowl,” referring to the secure lifetime employment within local governments, brings about mixed opinions.

Competitiveness vs. Chaos-

Local government chiefs taking the lead in the reform say the move is intended to bring about changes to increase competitiveness in the public sector, similar to the private sector. Most local governments are in the initial stage of the reform, but many local government chiefs say they see some changes already in that their workers are beginning to work harder.

Civil servants of a city in southwestern Korea, where a survey was conducted, now arrive for work punctually. An official stated, “No worker goes home after taking a business trip anymore.”

However, there are concerns, too. Geum Chang-ho, the head of the local administration reform center of the Korea Institute of Local Administration, says, “If this reform increases competitiveness and productivity, it will be good. But it could undermine the quality of the services offered to the public, if civil servants become concerned only about their survival rather than their work.” This statement speaks to the concern that if job places repeatedly experience drastic changes in personnel, they will become less committed to their work.

Positive Change vs. Unfairness-

Provincial governments hope that there will be some changes in the practices in which workers had been promoted automatically according to the pecking order and mistakes were basically condoned.

However, the effort to expel the incompetent has brought about some complaints and has created distrust. Most local authorities have vague and subjective evaluation criteria such as “a lack of ability” or “lack of commitment to work.” A program including multi-faceted evaluations and a conversation with a personnel official shows to have some problems as well.

This helps explain why so many evicted officials say, “Why me?” An official who was evicted and assigned to the correction support team complained, “When an organization is full of excellent people, there is always a bottom group of people when the organization is rated.”

Civil servants` unions also criticize that reform centered on “eviction” can be exploited as a means to control officials by local government chiefs or bureau chiefs, making officials blindly loyal to the boss in charge of personnel.

Park Se-jeong, a professor of public administration of Keimyung University, pointed out that “selecting unqualified workers through voting or a multi-faceted survey is not right. Creating an infrastructure for fair evaluation is a priority.”

True Reform vs. One-time Event –

On Thursday, a high-ranking official of a local government gathered bureau chiefs to deliver directives and said, “Many media outlets report that government officials will no longer enjoy an ‘iron rice bowl,’ but don’t worry.” He encouraged his workers by saying, “I asked Ulsan City government and they said they just made a plan without content, but the media made a fuss about it. Other local governments do not have detailed plans, either. If the public wants it so badly, then one or two employees will be terminated for show.”

In this vein, it is highly likely that reform efforts will end up as a one-time event.

Kang Hyeong-gi, a professor of Chungbuk University, said, “The Seoul City government should not focus on penalizing the incompetent three percent. Rather, it should put an emphasis on maximizing the performance of the remaining 97 percent.”

He continued, “Putting criminals in prison is intended to alarm people as well as to punish them. The eviction program should be directed at motivating officials and introducing a productive system.”