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Assistant Secretaries can deliver sharper leadership focus

Assistant Secretaries can deliver sharper leadership focus

Posted August. 30, 2023 08:31,   

Updated August. 30, 2023 08:31


In a recent report by The Dong-A Ilbo discussing an overhaul of government departments, we enquired approximately ten civil servants whether they could distinguish between the roles of an assistant secretary and a director within a government department. This curiosity arose due to the Ministry of Interior and Safety’s decision to eliminate the directorial position responsible for the equitable development of local and regional communities, replacing it with the role of assistant secretary. Regrettably, most civil servants were not well-informed about the rationale behind this change. Only a small minority, comprised of officials experienced in personnel affairs, displayed a vague understanding of the distinctions between these roles.

In the context of Korea’s public sector, the roles of assistant secretary and director may not appear drastically dissimilar. Both positions hold Class A distinctions as high-ranking civil servants, the highest position for a career civil servant to reach, positioned beneath the vice minister, an elected official, and offer equivalent compensation.

Nevertheless, a significant disparity exists in terms of their responsibilities and functions.

Directors are tasked with managing teams of subordinate employees, including other high-ranking officials. They oversee various affairs within the organization, wielding the final decision-making authority on matters. In essence, directors are leaders who approach issues from a holistic perspective.

In contrast, assistant secretaries are directly engaged with the immediate tasks at hand. While they may not be involved in the organization’s practical and administrative aspects, their focus remains on specific, time-sensitive tasks. Consequently, individuals with specialized expertise in particular areas are often appointed to these positions.

Former civil officials have frequently expressed reservations about the directorial system. One retiree recollected his tenure as a director, recounting, “My days were consumed by signing documents. I couldn’t concentrate on enhancing organizational stability, fearing that I could get fired at any moment.”

Introduced by the Ministry of Interior and Safety a decade ago in 2013, the assistant secretary role appears to stem from the recognition that the preexisting system inadequately addresses the challenges associated with the erosion of local and regional communities. The establishment of this new role aims to foster creativity and innovation beyond the confines of the existing system. The assistant secretary role is particularly suited to the dynamic environment where agile leadership akin to that in private firms can flourish.

While not a one-to-one comparison, a somewhat analogous system exists in the United States, where a few assistant secretaries support the secretary and vice secretary. Notably, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs oversees matters concerning South Korea and holds a position deemed more elevated than its Korean counterpart. Professor Kim Seok-eun from the Department of Administration noted that the U.S. government often recruits assistant secretaries with specialized expertise.

It is important to avoid hastily assuming that assistant secretaries are better equipped to manage tasks than directors. Indeed, creating a position without granting any decision-making authority would render the overhaul pointless. Nevertheless, assistant secretaries could present an opportunity to address persistent issues such as low birth rates, labor concerns, education, pensions, and matters of unification where role transitions are being sought.

Furthermore, assistant secretaries possessing specialized expertise could serve as a facilitator in instances where criticisms surface about vice ministers from the presidential office exercising overly authoritative control over departments, potentially impeding smooth operations. This perspective also aligns with President Yoon Suk Yeol’s commitment to governing the nation by delegating authority to qualified individuals with relevant expertise.