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[Editorial] Small government

President-elect Yoon should keep focus on building slim, efficient government

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol said he will place top priority on creating jobs and easing regulations with a “small government” led by experts with greater efficiency. His underlying idea is that the small yet efficient government should create an environment that is friendly to businesses so that they can create more quality jobs.

That is no easy task, particularly after President Moon Jae-in had already jacked up the number of public servants and jobs in the public sector during his five-year term. Moon’s priority was also creating jobs, but his focus was starkly different, as he pledged to add 810,000 new jobs in the public sector and increased state-arranged short-term jobs.

As a result of Moon’s policy, the number of public servants in South Korea shot up dramatically during Moon’s tenure, raising concerns about greater burdens on taxpayers and making it more difficult for President-elect Yoon to implement a much-needed slimming down of the bloated state organizations.

As of end-2021, the number of public servants stood at 1,156,952, up a record 12.4 percent, or 127,414, from the figure recorded at the end of 2016, according to data from the office of People Power Party Rep. Lee Myoung-su and the Ministry of Interior and Safety.

During the term of Park Geun-hye, the total number of public servants rose 4.19 percent; the figure for Lee Myung-bak logged a mere 1.24 percent. Even during the tenure of Roh Moo-hyun, who spearheaded liberal policies, the increase was 8.23 percent.

The Moon administration tried to justify the sharp increase by saying that newly added jobs were focused on promoting public safety and expanding everyday services for citizens.

But it is questionable whether such drastic expansion of public jobs is really needed. There are four factors to consider -- first, there is no specific data about how much the Moon administration tried to restructure the existing public agencies and reposition professionals to enhance efficiency, before recruiting more permanent jobs for public servants.

At a time when the private sector is embracing smaller yet more efficient organizations with the help of information technology, the government is lagging far behind in such endeavors.

Second, once new public servant positions are created, it is extremely difficult to go back to the previous level. Compared with private-sector jobs, public officials are not only given a solid job security until retirement but also more generous pensions. No public official wants to give up on their much-coveted jobs. The Republic of Korea Government Employees Union already expressed its opposition to President-elect Yoon’s plan to overhaul the state agencies for a smaller government, calling it “a unilateral move without social consensus.”

Third, Moon’s state-led job creation and an increased number of public servants put a heavier burden on the country’s budget as well as taxpayers, who have to foot the bill for their salaries and pensions in the following decades. Even with a revised pension scheme for public servants to reduce some benefits, current and future taxpayers should shoulder a greater financial burden.

Fourth, the overstaffed bureaucracy tends to have more regulatory red tape and unnecessary state interferences in the private sector, and would only weigh down corporates during an era of innovation and hypercompetition. Korea is already fraught with too many regulations that hinder the advancement of new products and services, and the idea that a state-led “control tower” is needed to supervise every industry is impractical.

To build a smaller government, President-elect Yoon should focus on private-sector job creation and overhaul state agencies aggressively, in a departure from President Moon’s policy that hurts already overburdened taxpayers.

By Korea Herald (