Local Governance, Mainstay for Evolving Grassroots Democracy
By Park Eung-kyuk
George Bush Jr. was the governor of Texas. Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. Ronald Reagan was the governor of California. They climbed to the top of central executive establishment from the gubernatorial post. They walked the same path in their political careers; from the governor to the president. It is common to see a governor-turned-president in the U.S.
When it comes to Korea, President Lee Myung-bak is the example. Lee is the first person to rise to the head of central government from mayor. Lee's story is a testimony to the successful advance of a local administrator into the central administrative hierarchy. He practiced a lot as administrator at a local level to become the head of state. His skillfulness displayed while in the Seoul mayoral office led people to elect him head of state.
Lee's entry into the center proves to be tangible fruit of the evolution of Korea's local governance that has played an increasing role in nurturing local administrators as national leaders to work with the central government. Several heads of municipalities are already being talked about as possible candidates for the 2013 presidential election. Municipalities, currently administered by those elected through a direct, popular vote, now serve as a good school to foster administrative technocrats who could advance into central government.
In this context, the competitiveness of localities is that of the country. The competitiveness of local administrators determines the competitive edge of the state.
Korea's local governance has been typified by democratization, expansion of civic participation, decentralization and devolution. Autonomous municipal governance can be a vehicle for promoting civic education through active residents' participation in local government. Citizen participation in public institutions enhances political maturity and civic consciousness.
Local leaders and residents are given the chance to learn regional business quickly when they assume a measure of responsibility in deciding local affairs. Citizens are trained to make better choices among competing priorities and leaders. They obtain invaluable training in resources allocation tailored to regional uniqueness. Such on-site education ultimately enriches government at the center as better-trained politicians emerge from the grassroots. Along this line, localities can be a home for activating grassroots democracy and promoting civic consciousness through on-the-spot education in local governments.
In 1995, Korea's local governance opened an epoch-making era when fully fledged local elections were simultaneously held to elect four local leaders ― provincial governors, councilors of provinces and metropolitan governments, and mayors and councilors of cities and counties across the country.
This combined election, the first of its kind since the birth of the Republic of Korea in 1948, was enforced by President Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) which termed his administration a ``Civilian Government,'' marking the official end of military-authoritarian rule. The local elections held at principal administrative levels, covered the Special City of Seoul, 16 Provinces (Do) and Wider-Area Cities (Metropolitan City), Gun (County), and Gu (District).
The implementation of local elections has changed the status of localities and municipalities from mere ``subordinate'' to central government to ``self-ruler.'' Since the debut of local self-rule government, democratization has been activated through the wider participation of residents, particularly civic groups such as non-government organizations.
Residents' participation in local affairs fans ``Nimby'' and ``Pimfy'' syndromes, synonymous with regional egotism. Residents have now enjoyed untold freedom of civic participation in local administration since the implementation of full local autonomy in 1995 when those first nationwide local elections were held.
Nimby, an acronym for ``not in my back yard,'' is a term used to describe opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development close to them. Opposing residents are often called ``Nimbies.'' The projects being opposed are largely considered to be favorable to many but unfavorable to some residents who want them to be located elsewhere. Nimby projects, enumerated by Nicholas Ridley, include waste disposal sites, cremation facilities, nuclear waste dumps and incinerators.
Pimfy, or ``please in my front yard,'' refers to local residents' campaigns to bring in such favorable establishments as schools and health facilities to their residential areas. Residents' collectivism is often seen in other countries, but it is particularly noticeable in Korea which has achieved remarkable national growth in a period of short time.
The prevalence of such collectivism in Korea, characterized by Nimby and Pimfy, mirrors a full blossom in its local governance. Local self-rule has been a principal axis which has led Korea to hit two birds with one stone ― a thriving economy and viable democracy. Self-rule governance is the basis of Korea's grassroots democracy, which is part of workable politics through active civic participation. Despite its strengths which have had a positive effect on national progress, extreme collective regionalism has often been a hurdle to local administration that has slowed or halted national growth.
Decentralization & Devolution
Decentralization of power is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of local autonomy, which aims to enhance administrative efficiency by being responsive to local needs, resulting in improving the quality of life for local residents through coordinating central government policies for the sake of residents' benefits.
Locally-elected officials are friendlier to residents than central administration officials as they can be voted out of office if they displease voters. In this context, decentralization cannot be considered to be a mere diffusion of administrative authority but a sharing of political power.
Decentralization can reduce intrusive instructions from the center. By providing greater speed and flexibility in decision-making, it reduces the need for micro-management by central authorities. In particular, rural development requires flexibility in the course of implementing projects when policy adjustments may be needed at short notice.
Decentralization can be used to address the defects of centralized development, which boil down to a drop in productivity, citizens' grievances about central bureaucrats' authoritarian meddling and a weakening of residents' self-help spirit. Local democracy is necessary for national unity. It works to combine conflicting views and diverse interests among various strata of society. Regional fervor for local development can be often stifled by over-centralization.
Decentralization is particularly relevant to meeting needs of the poor, and is especially needed to guide their participation in politics. Their political and material position may be improved as a result as it can be a more effective way of meeting local needs than central planning.
Devolution, which can be juxtaposed with the concept of ``small'' government, entails minimizing Korea's traditional and central government control by delegating much of the decision-making process to local government and public and private enterprises. It is the transfer of some authority or power from a central organization or government to smaller organizations.
As the world's 10th-largest trading nation, Korea's economic engine needs to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized public and private environment. The strategy of government policies for low cost and high productivity links devolution to the self-adjusting principles of free-market competition. Accordingly, government regulations need to be minimized as much as possible, while the realm of the private sector is expanded considerably. Improving the relationship between the central government and local governments is among the most significant concerns. In Korea, the central government remains a watchdog in executing local affairs.
"Unbelievable," "Untouchable" and "Long Live the Queen." These are among world media headlines written for Kim Yu-na which won a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada. Yu-na, the first-ever gold medalist in figure skating in Korea's sports history, is pride of Korea. With a large number of medals won in figure and speed skating, Korea rose to the fifth winter sports power.
Riding on a wind of booming national reputation in sports, Pyeongchang is geared to attempt its third bid for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Daegu will host the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) World Championships in 2011. Expo 2012 is scheduled in Yeosu. All municipalities and localities in Korea have been hell-bent on hosting major international events to get them better known globally, thus attracting more tourists and investors from abroad. Globalization is seen as a new paradigm for local government.
This presents both threats and opportunities to local governments. Multicultural corporations that have transformed into trans-national businesses no longer adhere to countries in which they are headquartered. Local governments are required to deal with a very broad range of issues if they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century and provide the best possible service to their clients at home and abroad in the face of both threats and opportunities.
It is considered beneficial for all local governments to share their information and expertise related to globalization. The globalization of local governments gets them to seek international exchanges that might take the form of cooperative relationships with foreign organizations, sisterhood agreements among schools and other institutions. These relationships often result in mutual exchanges between local governments in the fields of culture, arts, sports, and academics. International agreements result in a wide variety of exchanges, such as field trips for local public officials and councilors, seminars that can include those aimed at attracting investment, and the exchange and collection of all sorts of information.
Local governments need to develop human resources so as to globalize their administrative business and regional events. Urgently needed are the fostering of specialists such as those skillful in foreign language, trade and information experts, and well-trained Web programmers. Intensive on-the-job training of incumbent officials and future employees including college students needs to be conducted under international exchange programs and short-term or long-term programs offered by domestic research institutes.
A variety of globalization programs need to be implemented in such a way as to raise competitive edges over rival communities in consideration of their regional uniqueness. By all accounts, it is difficult for a local government to implement globalization programs independently in the absence of help from central government. Bidding efforts for hosting major international events require combined cooperation between the central government and municipalities.
Projects such as concluding sister-city agreements with foreign cities do not bring benefits only to one party, but to all parties involved. The central government's role is conspicuously increasing in internationalizing local communities in the era of globalization. Urgently needed at the moment is central government easing regulations and providing information and technology.
In general, there are two different systems for regulating matters at local governments. Korea and Japan take the form of the single-law system, while the United States and Canada have the home rule system in local governance, under which each local government is regulated by a set of different rules.
Korea keeps uniformity in its local administration under the single-law system, which has its own merits. It has a uniform standard which can raise efficiency in the execution of administrative business. The weakness of the single-law system is its disregard for local uniqueness. Taking economic efficiency and benefits of uniform administration into consideration, the single-law system might be the correct one for countries like Korea whose size is relatively small and where regional heterogeneity almost does not exist.
Nonetheless, a strict uniform system is seen as undesirable in a sense in the view that it lacks flexibility in the course of implementing a single-law, uniform system. Provisions of the Constitution applicable to local government stipulate that local government manage affairs for the welfare of the local people. Local government should manage local property, which means that local officials have the authority to collect tax revenues and to control the expenditure of those revenues. Local governments can enact ordinances and rules applicable in areas of their respective jurisdictions. Details related to local governments are decided by the Local Autonomy Act which is the basis for organizations to do local business.
When it comes to local government in Korea, ``autonomy'' can be interpreted from two aspects ― ``institutional autonomy'' and ``resident autonomy.'' Institutional autonomy means governance under which local governments independently attend to provincial affairs within certain limits set by the central government. Under this system, a local government is institutionally guaranteed in executing affairs related to residents as an affiliate of the central government.
Resident autonomy is based on a representative system under which representatives elected directly by residents administer local affairs, almost free of central government influence. Historically and traditionally, Korea maintained a governing structure of centralized authoritarian rule for unique features of its nation and territory.
What is akin to a modern local government dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty in the 10th century and its successor the Joseon Kingdom in the 15th century, whose municipal structures were quite different from modern local government systems.
Local governance in the modern sense began with the introduction of the Local Autonomy Act in 1949, one year after the 1948 establishment of the Republic of Korea. Since the birth of the republic, Korea's governance system has maintained a centralized political and administrative system with the president at the apex of executive establishment until the implementation of local elections for representatives of local councils and heads of municipal governments in 1991 and 1995 respectively.
Until the practical restoration of local autonomy at the beginning of the 1990s which had been stopped on and off for political reasons, Korea's administrative system was highly centralized. The central government mostly decided important policies, and local governments were merely its subordinate organs whose functions were confined to translating its directives into action.
Despite these undemocratic limits, Korea's centralized policy was deemed as inevitable then in seeking rapid economic growth. Local governance in Korea was guaranteed as a basic tenet of the democracy under the republic's first Constitution in 1948 but it was often weakened or halted for political reasons whenever the structure of political power has changed.
There have been tribulations and difficulties. The development of local politics has been hampered by political turmoil such as the Korean War (1950-53), the students' uprising (1960), the May 16 military coup (1961) and a military coup (1979). In the face of these social disturbances, the Korean Constitution has a legal groundwork institutionally guaranteeing the welfare of local people and ensuring regional development.
Korea is a unitary country that has a multi-strata organization of local administration. There are no fundamental differences from other countries in terms of the multi-middle strata. The hierarchical structure of Korean administration consists of a central government, upper-level local governments (Special Metropolitan City, Province), and lower-level local governments (City, Gun, Gu, Eup, Myeon and Dong).
The classification of administrative structure is largely based on the size of geography, population and financial resources. There has been a lot of criticism among pundits on the current multi-strata structure of the local administration. Views are divided over the classification of levels of administrative units. Some argue that the levels should be scaled down to increase administrative efficiency and to better serve the people.
Having a short chain of levels is more efficient than a multitude of them, experts say. To slim down the levels of a multi-strata structure of administration, the size of local government needs to be readjusted. In other words, affairs generally dealt with by local governments might better be transferred to the business-friendly private sector or other public institutions, while eliminating many regulations that have been applicable in implementing a host of government-initiated development programs done in the course of making fast national progress.
Things to Do
Regional disparity is one of major concerns facing Korea. This inequality has largely stemmed from the unbalanced development among areas, especially between urban and rural regions. This is one of the most pressing problems that both the central and local governments have to solve together.
Regional imbalance has slightly narrowed over the past decades, but it still remains at an unsatisfactory level. Among other problems facing local areas are financial weakness, traffic backwardness, housing shortages and environmental contamination. Regions with a decaying economy and decreasing population usually face a low quality of life and economic strains.
The introduction of an effective omnibus checks-and-balance system is in order to weed out various kinds of irregularities and malpractices involving local administration officials. To achieve a perfect local self-rule mechanism is not easy because centuries-old tradition of centralized authority cannot be dissolved in a couple of days.
In the face of the improvement in local governance system, Korea's locality system still falls short of the standards of a fully-advanced country. Local governments which lack the financial resources, professional talents, and information, are advised to capitalize on expertises and experiences from the private sector as much as possible. In this view, central government's role coordinating local government and private sector is deemed necessary.
Korea has still a lot to do in a bid to realize the independence of local governance, administratively and financially, from the central government. Achieving financial independence is a short-cut to realize the truly-independent autonomic municipalities such as ones with the self legislative power and the rights to execute all kinds of provincial issues free of central government's intervention. The ultimate goal of local governance lies in the creation of local government functioning independently through decentralization, devolution, democratization and globalization.