Opinion
[Voice] How can government reduce waste?
With reckless spending a recurring problem ...
Published : Apr 1, 2013 - 19:57
Updated : Apr 1, 2013 - 19:57
Some 343 trillion won ($307 billion) of taxpayers’ money has been allocated for the government to spend this year. Reflecting President Park Geun-hye’s vision of an expanded welfare state, the figure is an increase of more than 5 percent from 2012. If modern Korean history is any guide, however, not all of this money will be prudently spent.

From lavish overseas junkets for lawmakers to mammoth infrastructure projects built on the basis of overestimated demand, examples of government waste have drawn the ire of taxpayers on countless occasions. Transport projects, in particular, have hit the headlines in recent years for swallowing up public funds on a vast scale. The Uijeongbu Light Rail, which was built under a public-private partnership, attracted only about one-sixth of the forecasted ridership upon opening last summer, generating big losses for the local government.

Under a minimum revenue guarantee in the contract with the private investors, the local government could be on the hook for as much as 10 billion won annually for the next 30 years. The Gimhae-Busan light rail, opened in 2011, has had similar passenger traffic, straining the budgets of the Busan and Gimhae local governments and calling into question the use of funds from the central government. Meanwhile, the deficits shouldered by the state for nine public-private express highways amounted to 1.6 trillion won in 2011.
The National Assembly stands in Yeouido, Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“Whenever they do such kind of public-private funded projects they tend to over-measure the demand for the project (so) that the project could be successfully launched,” Kim Tae-yoon, a professor of public administration at Hanyang University, told Voice. “Then all of the burden of such miscalculation is borne by local people or the central government.”

Policy overlap

One suggestion to rein in reckless spending at the local level is for the central government to withhold or cut funds.

“In the case of local government, central government should reduce grants to local governments. Instead local government should rely more on local taxes,” said Kim Chung-ho, an economics professor at Seoul National University and former head of the Center for Free Enterprise.

Then there is deciding the so-called size of government, a debate of ideologies over how much and on what to spend taxpayers’ money. In Kim’s opinion, the number of government employees is excessive.

“Government organizations employ too many employees compared to private firms,” said Kim. “Former mayor of Seoul Choi Pyong-yol (1994-95) once said that the city of Seoul should cut at least one-third of the bureaucrats.”

Overlap in the function and policies of different ministries has also been spotlighted as a source of wasteful spending. Hanyang University’s Kim said that the nature of presidential politics meant that ministries had an incentive to rebrand old policies to appear in line with a new administration’s agenda.

“Whenever there is a big political agenda, such as a presidential agenda or whatsoever, then each ministry tries to modify their own pet projects into such kind of form,” Kim said. “So actually, they don’t change the substance of the program; they just change the so-called objective of the program so that it could match the political or presidential agenda.”

Kim added that ministries that shared responsibilities in certain areas ― such as child care, which falls under the remit of several ministries ― justified the existence of sometimes unnecessary programs to secure themselves greater authority.

“The Korean government does have a strong budgeting office in the Ministry of Finance but even they could not figure out the true objective of each program by the many ministries. The basic reason why Korea is suffering more (than) other advanced countries is the bureaucracy in each ministry tends to … grab their own pet projects … so they could not directly earn some money, but… enlarge their power or authority.”

An official from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance’s Budget Coordination Bureau, who was contacted to comment on budget waste, did not respond by press time. The ministry, however, announced in January plans to identify and eradicate overlapping spending in order to secure funds for President Park’s welfare pledges.

‘Platform’ government

If policy overlap is a source of inefficiency according to some, it is a lack of coordination between ministries that is the root cause, according to Lee Won-hee, a professor of public administration at Hankyong University in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province. Lee that said an effective central authority was badly needed to maintain a coherent strategy among ministries.

“Theoretically, we emphasize the ‘platform’ government,” said Lee. “Platform means each railway has its own direction but they can meet in a station. I think when operating government there should be many kinds of such ‘platforms’ in the government. For example, (if) there is no linking function between the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Knowledge Economy (which both deal with environmental issues) then there will be fragmentation or overlapping of projects.”

Measures to address this issue were passed at the National Assembly just last month. Under President Park’s government reorganization bill, the Prime Minister’s Office was split into an office for government policy coordination and an office for the prime ministers’ secretaries.

“The new President Park Geun-hye has emphasized the role of the prime minister and the department of policy coordination,” said Lee. “If that department can function properly, that can be the answer. But actually the new prime minister was a lawyer so I think there will still be some problems.”

Yet some would argue that, in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. Holding the government to account for waste requires an informed voting public. In the opinion of Kim of Seoul National University, the public is not sufficiently aware of how its money is being spent.

“For example, the government compels private kindergartens to publicize expenditures through the Internet, but not public kindergartens,” said Kim, who listed idle airports, subsidized local festivals and extravagant city hall buildings as prime examples of government waste.

Without “continuous monitoring by the citizens,” he said, government profligacy would never be brought under control.

“In order to get votes, presidential, mayor and gubernatorial candidates promise conspicuous projects without considering budgets.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)


Readers’ voice

Foreigners’ shopping nightmare…

Korea is a great place for convenient shopping. You can buy almost anything online, for cheap, and have it delivered to your door. Furniture, books and more ... unless you’re a foreigner.

This isn’t due to a Korean language issue. You can know every word on the website and still be unable to join the website, or place an order. Why? Because the website must know who you are. It must know your real name. And your real name in Korean might not be clear.

My name, in English, is “Darren Bean.” In Hangeul, that’s 다렌빈, 빈다렌, 빈대런, 대런빈, and sometimes other spellings. In Roman letters I never know which name comes first (“Bean Darren” or “Darren Bean”) or if my middle name is included. About half my documents use Hangeul (one bank account, my health insurance card), and about half don’t (a different bank account and my alien ID card).

So if I register for a site, and it asks my real name, I get to guess (several times), which “real name” is mine. Sometimes nothing will work at all (Aladdin). Sometimes the site will only allow Hangeul entry but wants the real name on my alien card, which is in Roman letters and therefore impossible (Korail). Some will let me through, but honestly I don’t remember which name it was, I tried so many (Naver, Gmarket and 1345, the volunteering website). I guess I should write those passwords down somewhere (sarcasm and huge security problem) because I certainly don’t want to go through the password recovery, where the site asks my name, again.

These experiences have left me generally convinced I should not try to do things online in Korea. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes trying different names only to find out none work, when that’s often the case. So instead of buying more books or CDs, I do less shopping, which gives less money to the merchants. Good for me, I suppose, but I would think it’d be sufficient inspiration for those vendors to update their systems. Or perhaps bug their legislators for amendments to the real name law specifying exactly how a foreigner’s name should be done in Korea.

And don’t ever change your name. Even if you go to immigration and have the change officially recorded, headaches follow. My bank told me that they required a name change certificate (like a court would issue) from immigration. Immigration doesn’t produce such things. I had the U.S. court documents (apostilled) and an amendment notation from Immigration on my alien card, but that wasn’t enough for my bank. (Until I went to a different branch, where the clerk knew me, and it was no problem. So there were no real rules, like usual.)

Logical

And if you want to change phones? Well, last spring, after an hour on the phone, the rep selling me the upgrade informed me that, although the telecom would forward calls from my old number to my new phone, but not let me keep the number. This is quite interesting from a logical perspective. They were not sufficiently convinced of my identity to let me keep the same number, but they were sufficiently convinced that I could forward calls. What if I really was someone else, maliciously forwarding hundreds (or maybe just dozens) of calls so that I could ... waste my time and minutes? The best part about that very long afternoon was when I was informed that, if I had a new alien card (instead of an amended one) it wouldn’t have been an issue. As rational as everything else that day, I suppose.

The interesting point about the last two examples is that they show that, although fear of the law is the cause, the real problem is incompetence by private industry. Individual businesses do not have policies to deal with expats or name changes in a way that works. For some services like cell phones, we may put up with it, but it does encourage us to shop a bit more, and it does nothing to spin the image of the country into a positive light. For online shopping, it discourages purchases, and I’m assuming merchants would like to sell more, not fewer, goods.

Perhaps the government can clarify what procedures are sufficient when checking a foreigner’s identity? Or allow some exceptions for spellings? Minimize punishment against businesses where they had reasonable procedures in place?

Perhaps websites can update a bit and allow foreign alphabets to be entered for “name” if the person is an alien? Or have an email or phone verification of identity so that the customer isn’t caught in (nonfunctioning) scripts and parameters?

A few months ago, the JoongAng Daily ran a story about how unhelpful translations of road signs were, and the appropriate ministry began investigating the issue. I would love to see the same thing happen here.

In the meantime, the alternative method my friends have suggested is simply “borrowing” their log-in when I want to shop online. But I’d never do that. It’d be against the “Real Name” law.

― Darren Bean!, professor of International Trade Law at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul

Immigration ...

Now, the topic for (last week’s) Voice was focused on sustainability. But the topic does not state whose point of sustainability we should talk about. So, rather than approaching this problem from Korea’s viewpoint, I would like to offer a different view ― immigrants’ views. As a person who has been to foreign states, I understand the difficulties in adapting to a totally different culture. Likewise, every immigrant struggles when moving into another country. They slowly lose their culture and find themselves changing their lifestyles just to survive among wild, ferocious foreigners. The current rates of immigration are constantly rising which leads to more and more immigrants losing their culture: their true nature and identity. Consequently, more immigrants will slowly forget their culture.

Some might say that immigrants can maintain their own cultures by creating their own towns (such as China town in Busan). However, we should clearly know that this “culture” is not the original culture but rather a mixed culture. For example, when you go visit any Korean town in the U.S., you will find yourself eating “Korean” food with Americanized flavors. So this action of “reserving” one’s culture is creating an integrated culture.

Furthermore, when immigrants think less about their culture and try to live as true Koreans, they might be more cordial towards one culture (which in this case is Korea’s culture). This sense of cordiality will be the headstone of cultural discrimination, even among the group of immigrants. The discrimination brings about the notion that a certain culture is dominant over other cultures. Therefore, for the sake of immigrants’ cultures, the rate of immigration should be curbed.

― Yuh Yun-sung, Daegu, via Facebook
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