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[Editorial] Small is beautiful

The government and the ruling Grand National Party have agreed to increase the number of welfare staff at local governments by 30 percent to improve the administration of social welfare programs. Under the plan, announced Wednesday, the government would add 7,000 new public officials to the existing workforce by 2014.

The plan is aimed at easing the shortage in field workers responsible for delivery of welfare benefits and services to eligible people. According to the government, the number of welfare recipients surged from 3.94 million in 2006 to 9.94 million last year. During the period, the combined welfare budget of the central and local governments also increased from 71 trillion won to 108 trillion won. But the nation’s welfare workforce merely gained 4.4 percent during the five years, totaling 22,461 in 2010.

As a result, the average number of welfare officials at 3,360 district resident centers ― the point of service delivery ― in cities and counties across the nation stands at 1.6. This means a single public employee has to take care of hundreds or even thousands of welfare recipients in his or her district.

To make matters worse, a local welfare official has to administer a wide array of programs. The 13 ministries of the central government alone operate 292 welfare schemes. Add to this the programs run by each local government and the total easily exceeds 300.

Under these circumstances, government officials say, welfare workers have difficulty even checking whether all eligible people have applied for state welfare plans. For many, they say, it is virtually impossible to grasp the individual situations of the recipients in their districts and tailor benefits and services to their needs.

If the shortage of welfare officials is so serious as to hamper the delivery of the existing programs to qualified people, then it is only natural that the government beefs up service-delivery manpower. But if the government intends to meet the manpower needs simply by hiring new civil servants, it needs to think again.

Before hurrying to recruit new public employees, the government ought to make extensive efforts to ensure an efficient use of the existing workforce. Based on a thorough job analysis, it needs to move officials out of jobs where surplus manpower exists into local welfare jobs where manpower is in short supply. It won’t be too late to hire new officials after exhausting other options.

This point needs to be emphasized given the recent press reports about public officials who just idle away their time, eating away taxpayers’ money. For instance, some officials in the Seoul Metropolitan Government were found by the Board and Audit and Inspection to have the nerve to tend to personal matters or even attend graduate school classes during office hours.

The Lee Myung-bak government has every reason to be prudent in expanding the civil service. During his election campaign in 2007, Lee promised to make a “small but efficient” government. He preached that a small government was a prerequisite for boosting the nation’s sagging economy. He abolished three ministries in his bid to cut down on the number of civil servants. He said what mattered was not the size of the civil service but its competence.

But during the past three years under the Lee government, the size of the civil service increased by some 25,000, boosting the total number of central and local government officials to 987,754 as of last year’s end. The figure is expected to top the 1 million mark soon as the government is set to hire more public employees, including welfare workers.

As is well known, it is difficult to downsize the civil service because the status of public officials is guaranteed as prescribed by law. The government should always remember this and exercise prudence in recruiting new employees.
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