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[Editorial] Curing ‘December Fever’

Posted November. 05, 2008 08:28,   


The National Assembly Secretariat last year spent 46 percent of its asset acquisition budget of 3.2 billion won (2.4 million U.S. dollars) in the fourth quarter, using up 36 percent in December alone. The money was spent on air purifiers, microwave ovens, electric fans and other items. On Dec. 31, 180 million won (139,751 dollars) was spent on 124 items. This proves the Secretariat, which is supposed to monitor government expenditures, spent the rest of its budget before the year ended. If the Secretariat is squandering its budget, other ministries and organizations are probably doing the same.

Every year, the central and provincial governments and public organizations suffer from “December fever,” brooding over how to spend their unused budget before the year ends. The number of year-end budget squandering incidents exposed by the Board of Audit and Inspection and reported to the Government Budget Misuse Reporting Center is unfathomable. For 15 days starting Dec. 14, 2004, the Roh administration spent 737 million won (701,657 dollars) on 50 pieces of furniture and office equipment, including coat hangers worth 1.32 million won (1,256 dollars).

Despite scrutiny and criticism, the behavior of civil servants is not changing. This shows a serious lack of ethics and significant flaws in the system. According to this year’s Transparency International’s survey on public sector integrity, Korea ranked 40th among 180 countries. No organization will try to cut costs if labeled incompetent for not using its entire budget and its funding will get cut the year after. That is why money is spent to repair undamaged roads, buy nonessential equipment, and make unnecessary business trips abroad.

Last year saw the introduction of government measures to prevent budget misuse at year’s end, thus improvement is anticipated this year. The government is moving in the right direction in allowing the use of leftover budget for other purposes, like as incentives at budget appropriation in the New Year and setting up a task force to audit budget spending at year’s end. The government and the National Assembly must deliver their plans.

In the face of the economic crisis, the government will need a lot of financial resources. Tax revenues will fall short, however, as the national debt of 300 trillion won (233 billion dollars) will account for 33 percent of GDP. Thrift is required more than ever. A cure is needed for “December fever” by fundamentally overhauling the practices and systems of budget appropriation and execution. A strong urgency is needed for a dramatic change in civil servants’ perspectives and behavior.