Recently, the popularity of a civil service called “iron rice bowl” is decreasing in South Korea. What first comes to your mind when you think of civil servant? Is it the appearance of civil servants sitting comfortably at a community center and answering civil calls or confidently working with a public official ID card around his/her neck? The reality of the civil servant isn’t the same as what people think that civil servants work would be paid well. In 2022, two civil servants who belong to Sejong City committed suicide one after another concerning the controversy about the working environment until now of civil servants. The chairman of the Sejong City Council pointed out that the increased workload was a leading cause of their suicide and emphasized there was a need for the significant increase of the personnel. A civil servant society with an incessant noise, yet young people who don’t want to be civil servants anymore. What kind of problems are there in the Korean civil servant sector?
A Civil Servant
A civil servant is a job which takes charge of government or local public organizations. Under the Article 2 of the National Public Service Law, a civil servant is parceled out into career civil servant and non-career civil servant. A career civil servant is employed by performance and qualification, being able to work as a civil servant during life. A career civil servant includes administrative positions taking charge of technology, research and general administrative and special position working for a particular province, like a fire fighter and a police officer. A non-career civil servant isn’t employed by strict merit system and doesn’t have a right to work as civil servant during life. A non-career civil servant includes a public official in political service and an official in special government service. A public official in political service takes charge of a high degree of political judgement and determination like a president, secretary general and vice-minister. An official in special government service is a civil servant performing assistance tasks like a secretary, which isn’t employed by a service examination.
Many people wanted a career as a civil servant as a lifelong job to survive from the continuous unemployment crisis. Applicants for administrative positions should pass a civil service exam divided into grades 5, 7 and 9. If people want to have a special position like fire fighter and police officer, they should prepare for a special position test and an examination of physical strength. A career civil servant section reflects Korean history test scores and language proficiency test scores, so applicants should study those subjects, too. It takes an average of 1 year and 6 months to 2 years and 6 months to pass a civil service exam and there are some people who prepare for a test for 3 years. Most people who hope to be a civil servant study at private educational institutes in Noryangjin, Seoul. For this reason, there is a social perception that applicants for a civil service should study in Noryanjin to pass a test, so people who lived in the provinces move to Seoul. Why do many people want to be a civil servant to the point where they move to another region and concentrate on a test? Civil servants can work without political interference because a guarantee of civil servant’s status is because a guarantee of civil servant’s status is definite under a career civil service system. Also career civil servants can receive annuity after regular retirement. For these reasons, people hope to be civil servant because they think the civil service is stable job to the point that calling a civil servant as an “iron rice bowl.”
Problems of Civil Servant and Cautions of decreased demand
Lately, demand for people to be a civil servant is decreasing. According to Government Employment Prospect Report of Korea Institute of Public Administration in 2020, it was found that the manpower requirement of civil servant will decrease. In particular, it is reported that there will be a significant decline in general administration, economic industry, education and culture. In the case of general administration, manpower requirement is expected to decrease by about 16%, economic industry by 9.5%, and education and culture by 8.1%. According to the Ministry of Personnel Management of the Republic of Korea, the competition rate for the civil servant of grade 7 administrative positions in 2022 is 42.7 to 1, down from 47.8 to 1 in 2021. Also, the competition rate for the civil servant of grade 9 administrative positions in 2022 is 22.5 to 1, down about 7% from the previous year and the lowest level in 21 years. Some pass a civil service exam the first time, but others fail several times. Young people who failed the exam failed to get a job and were stressed by the fact that they had to study for the same test again, which they had already studied for a long time, some even went to the extreme of committing suicide when they didn’t pass.
Some give up their dream of being a civil servant while preparing but there are cases that existing civil servants change jobs because of pay. According to Maeil Business Newspaper, after-tax income of civil servant of grade 7 administrative position is 1.99 million won. According to Seoul Newspaper, interviewee K preparing for a civil service exam said that he hopes to be a civil servant because of stability, but civil service is not an attractive job in terms of pay. Pay is the most important element to raise the morale and pride of civil servants, but even though pay is the most important element to raise the morale and pride of civil servant, current pay is lower than office level jobs and annual income for civil servant is decreasing now. Also, the social tendency is becoming widespread that people consider changing jobs, especially if the work environment and job conditions are poor or people aren’t interested with their job. The demand of being a civil servant is decreasing and the turnover rate is increasing for these various reasons. The pay drawbacks should be solved to increase a demand and decrease the turnover rate, but it seems to be difficult to try because there is misunderstood social awareness that civil servant is already a stable job.
A mental pain problem of civil servants related with civil petitioner has been raised consistently. According to Yonhap Newspaper in 2022, Mr. A, civil servant of community service center in Seoul has suffered from abuse and assault by the civil petitioner. Mr. A said that the petitioner has filed a civil complaint repeatedly and outright and threated him with deadly weapons. According to KBS News in the same year, another civil servant who had been suffering from continuous verbal abuse by a civil petitioner for four years ended up arguing and was reported for assaulting that petitioner. The government of South Korea distributed guidelines for responding to civil petitions in 2018. In the case of assault by a civil petitioner, guidelines for responding to civil petitions, such as permission to record for collecting evidence, are classified by situations and steps. However, if a civil servant responds to malicious petitioners according to guidelines, the agency will start responding at the institutional level after taking a total of four steps: “Recording immediately”, “End of the call”, “Reporting the situation”, and “Response of the department head.” In other words, even if a civil servant is verbally abused or sexually harassed by a civil petitioner, strong measures can’t be taken immediately. Chung Ho-min, head of the Gangdong-gu branch of the union, argued that the system should be changed to prevent indiscriminate malicious complaints by limiting the number of complaints or strictly applying the criteria for filling complaints.
Reforms for civil servant
Discussions related to the workplace environment of civil servant continue, and various reforms for them are being implemented. However, the most important pay reform has not been clearly carried out, causing complaints from civil servant. In 2022, the South Korean government announced that it will raise the remuneration of civil servant below grade 5 administrative position by 1,7% and freeze the remuneration of high-ranking civil servant above grade 4. It is true that the Ministry of Strategy and Finance has conservatively set labor costs for civil servants as Korea is currently experiencing an economic recession where inflation and unemployment rates rise at the same time. The civil servants’ union recently accused the government of deciding to pay civil servants at an absurdly low level, saying that it was a salary increase that was not suitable for the inflation rate. Subsequently, the Federation of civil servants strongly argued that it is the government’s responsibility for young civil servants to retire because of low pay. The federation of civil servants continues to engage in various activities, such as holding a press conference to raise remuneration.
The government and each local government have begun conducting psychological counseling projects to support civil servants suffering from malicious complaints. In June 2022, the Ministry of Personnel Management of the Republic of Korea planned a “psychological counseling project” to provide services to incumbent civil servants who wish to consult. The Ministry of Personnel Management announced that it will improve services’ shortcomings by piloting the project this year to support more civil servants. In 2022, Wonju-si, Korea, is expanding psychological support to protect civil servants from malicious complaints. Wonju Newspaper reported that Wonju City provides programs such as personal psychological counseling, experience and rest programs, stress level and factor tests, and healing education for civil servants. Wonju City will also come up with additional support measures related to jobs, such as job rotation positions and customized education for each position. It is effective to provide post-service to protect civil servants, but necessary to revise the civil service response manual to block malicious complaints in advance.
In 2022 the Ministry of Personnel Management of Korea announced the basic plan for innovation in public service culture. The plan includes that peer evaluation is reflected first when evaluating civil servants for performance-based payment. This is a plan to prevent the departure of young civil servants with low seniority and to recharge morale. The Ministry of Personnel Management plans to expand the places and hours where remote work is possible and to introduce a pilot autonomous work system. In addition, it announced that it will redefine the image of civil servants’ talent in accordance with the times to improve the sluggish public service society. Ulsan Jeil Ilbo reported that the reform of the Ministry of Personnel Management is desirable, but there is a slight lack of speed. Some also suggested that it is time for the government to consider more innovative changes so that talented young people can achieve results in public service society.
Civil servant personnel management system of other countries
It seems necessary for the Republic of Korea to apply overseas cases in order to solve the limitations of public service society. The United States is implementing a meritocracy system in which civil servants are selected through competitive tests. Applicants with KSA (Knowledge, Skill and Ability) required for each position will be considered as a priority during the recruitment test. For example, speaking ability is considered an important quality if a position requires explaining policy changes to the public. The United States operates an internship program of civil servants for university students and graduates to attract talented young people to the public sector. Recently, the U.S. federal government has linked talented applicants to federal departments, linking talented people across the country. In the case of pay, the annual salary of U.S. civil servants who work similar to the grade 9 administrative positions is about twice as high. In summary, when hiring civil servants, the United States considers the competencies necessary for each position first, conducts various programs, and pays appropriate salaries.
Japan completely reorganized the civil service exam system in 2012 due to the side effects of parachute appointments. The reorganized test includes a basic ability test that values logical thinking, an interview test that values personality, and a policy discussion test that values policy planning ability. Japan is strengthening a meritocracy system by evaluating performance and reflecting it in promotion. In the past, Japan only gave opportunities for promotion of executives to experienced civil servants or recruiters employed through general employment test recruiters. After reorganization, the possibility of social mobility is increased by giving opportunities to general and professional test recruiters. Japan tried reforms for civil servants to attract talented people to the public service society, but the demand for young people is still low. According to a survey by the Japanese government in 2021, many young civil servants retire or wish to retire due to low income and self-development. Although South Korea and Japan are devising a method, they still can’t increase demand of young people for civil servant.
The U.S. and Japan are trying to attract young talented people to the public service society, even if there are some drawbacks. The Ministry of Personnel Management of South Korea is employing private talented people to public service society, but those departments which employ private ones give a chance only to high ranking position workers. For this reason young people who are just starting out in a career are difficult to seize an opportunity. If South Korea wants to implement more definite reforms rather than now, it needs to apply civil servant internship programs of U.S. to Korean society flexibly. Now South Korea is implementing the Public Service Aptitude Test, PSAT which evaluates a capability suitable for job after reorganizing a civil servant exam which requires only individual knowledge. Even though South Korea wants to strength a merit system, expertise and suitability of job now, it seems necessary for South Korea to check the introduction of expertise test and policy discussion test of Japan. It is very important to retain talented young people to a civil service society by evaluating applicants’ suitability of job and performance and applying them to promotion assessment.
A civil servant who was like a ray of light for its stability is now suffering from various problems. It may be natural for young Koreans to have an antipathy for being a civil servant. How can our society attract young people to public service society who want to develop themselves by experiencing new things? Shouldn’t the Korean government take measures to ensure that civil servants work with pride as members of public service society? It seems necessary to provide a thorough protection network for lower-level civil servants who directly respond to civil complaints. In addition, South Korea should show that seniority is not important by giving civil servants the opportunity to be promoted solely by their own performance. It is time to try to improve the job environment of civil servants so that the efforts of young people who have wanted to be civil servants are not in vain.