Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, who concurrently serves as deputy prime minister for economic affairs, has had a versatile career as an economic bureaucrat, editorial writer at a local newspaper and politician. This background certainly puts him in a strong position to accurately grasp the inefficiencies that have come about since Sejong City was launched two years ago as a new administrative hub.
He chose to hold a debate with a broader group of ministry officials Sunday on how to reduce the inefficiency after rejecting a series of written proposals worked out by a specific division deemed in charge of the matter. Choi told the participants that all public servants should make the most efficient use of their time, which he said was an invaluable asset of the people. He noted that the physical distance between the capital of Seoul and the new administrative city could never be an excuse for leaving inefficient practices unaddressed.
Needless to say, he made the right points. But concrete and persistent efforts need to be taken, not just by his ministry staff but by all the administrative and legislative branches, to eliminate the inefficiencies so as to avoid inconveniencing the people and undermining national competitiveness.
So far, 13 government ministries and agencies have moved from Seoul and nearby areas to Sejong, about 130 km south of the overpopulated capital. Dealing with parliamentary affairs, in particular, has required so much time and energy from officials that their concentration on key policy tasks has been disrupted.
Choi’s predecessor Hyun Oh-seok visited the National Assembly once a week while in office for 18 months. In June, economic ministers abruptly changed the venue of their regular meeting from Sejong to Seoul so that they would have time to hear speeches by floor leaders of the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. Choi, who was serving as Saenuri floor leader at the time, should feel embarrassed about having done little to stop Cabinet ministers from following such inefficient practices.
It has also become routine for most bureau and division chiefs to accompany their ministers to parliamentary committee sessions.
The situation will worsen after the relocation of five more government agencies to Sejong by the end of this year. The time and money squandered on shuttling between Seoul and Sejong will ultimately burden the public in the form of delayed and inadequate services.
Participants in Sunday’s discussion agreed that the number of ministry officials accompanying ministers to parliamentary sessions should be minimized. Face-to-face briefings to be made by ministry officials to Choi when he is in Seoul will also be strictly limited to inevitable cases. Other ministries based in Sejong, about a two-hour journey from Seoul, can also be expected to adopt these measures.
In a broader context, however, both the legislature and the administration have to use all methods available to reduce the degree of inefficiency. Lawmakers should dump the practice of summoning Cabinet ministers and other senior officials to parliamentary sessions when their attendance is unnecessary. Deliberation through video conferencing should be conducted in line with Korea’s reputation as an advanced, high-tech country.
As some pundits have noted, a fundamental solution to the problems involving the administrative town, which were already expected when legislators passed a related bill in 2012, may be to move the legislature to Sejong. Choi, who is a key Cabinet member and lawmaker, may also be in a position to make a strong case for this idea.