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Taiwan's Civil Service

Rising out of the Mire


Rising out of the Mire


Tangled in red tape and saddled with low morale, Taiwan's civil service is in need of an upgrade. A comparison with the highly reputed bureaucracy of Singapore may offer some instructive clues.



Rising out of the Mire

By Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 403 )

As Taiwanese officials continue disputing the advantages of big government vs. small government (an argument that emerged internationally in the 1980s), the world has shifted its focus to establishing effective government.

In his book, State Building, author Francis Fukuyama, renowned for his work The End of History and the Last Man, tirelessly reiterated that the importance of governance has not diminished with the arrival of globalization and liberalization. According to Fukuyama, a strong country may have either a strong government or a weak government (indicating efficacy, not interference), but a weak country will inevitably have a weak government.

The late Milton Friedman, "grandmaster" of free-market economic theory, admitted during his last interview that his past rhetoric may have been oversimplified – the free market is not a panacea. Indeed, a set of well-defined rules must be established and followed – a task that requires an effective government.

What are the flaws in Taiwan's civil service system? What can be done to improve it in the short term and the long term?

The civil service system is currently facing two great challenges: The first is staying on track in international affairs. For example, industrial policy must keep up to date with such issues as climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. The other is understanding changes in society within Taiwan. For example, with the arrival of a democratic civil society,  the government needs to hold multilateral consultations with an ever-increasing number of for-profit and non-profit organizations when making policy decisions. But it also must be able to integrate and coordinate differing opinions.

Two Years in the Civil Service Snuff Out Ambition

To produce a highly motivated civil service, competitive salaries are essential. For example, the civil servants of Singapore are known to be generously remunerated. Yet throughout years of interviews with CommonWealth Magazine, a long series of government officials have insisted that while compensation is important, even more vital is an environment that facilitates tangible achievements and cultivates a sense of pride.

Former Research, Development and Evaluation Commission minister Jay Shih believes that Taiwan operates under different parameters – not many countries in the world can provide the kind of compensation Singapore does its civil servants. The majority of countries support a middle-class lifestyle for their civil servants. Taiwanese civil servants are paid a starting salary of NT$40,000 per month – this is a higher starting salary than that offered by private enterprises. A difference in compensation does not become apparent until the promotional cycle begins, when the private sector starts to pay more. Taiwanese civil servants also enjoy excellent retirement benefits, including a preferential savings program with an 18-percent interest rate, which translates into lifelong financial security. The issue of salaries is therefore not an urgent problem.

Many civil servants feel that they have a mission, and have great hopes that their service will effect change. They believe that implementing good policies will greatly improve the lives of the people. Yet over the years government has become increasingly entangled in red tape, and ultimately they become resigned to reality.

Many public administration professors have witnessed students who were passionate for change lose steam after less than two years in the system.

According to the opinion of both civil servants and scholars, what Taiwan can do in the short term is to increase duty rotation and training.

But the human resources policy of Taiwan's government has become rigid. With 20-plus occupational streams operating within the civil service system, inter-stream mobility is nonexistent, and duty rotation impossible. The only hope for flexibility lies in consent from the Ministry of Civil Service for new legislation.

Only agency leaders are endowed with the power to rotate employees within their organizations.

Unfortunately, this is far from common practice. "On the one hand, they're reluctant to swap out experienced staff for trainees, and on the other hand, they're reluctant to offend their colleagues," one former chief secretary of the Ministry of Economic Affairs reveals.

In Singapore, it is the permanent secretary's duty to gauge the abilities and potential of individual ministry staff members by way of duty rotations. Another important advantage of duty rotation is the elimination of sectionalism among civil servants. Only by teaching civil servants to approach each problem from myriad angles can a government function effectively and as a team. "When you're arguing for your position with someone today, you must keep in mind that you may be transferred to his office tomorrow. You can't let where your backside is sitting determine where your head is at," says Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Giving Up Will Only Harm the People

In addition to diligent recruitment efforts, Singapore also places great emphasis on civil servant training. There are a variety of training courses offered, and high-level Singaporean officials are never allowed to take office without six-months' requisite training. International know-how and crisis management are the most essential among training courses.

Changes need to be made to Taiwan's civil servant evaluation system. Each Singaporean ministry uses a unique evaluation form, clearly assessing an employee's performance and efficiency. The "high" rating, it is noted, should be used sparingly. In sharp contrast, Taiwan has only one form for over 300,000 civil servants of all descriptions, which is filled with abstract and intangible evaluation categories. Neither supervisors nor subordinates lend much credence to their results, and 75 percent of all employees are granted the "high" rating, seemingly only as a means to an extra month's pay in a civil servant's year-end bonus. An evaluation that does not assess performance or figure into promotion decisions only creates a false equality. In a commendable effort to eradicate corruption, Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng recently introduced the stringent "Standard of Conduct for Civil Servants." However, as these standards are non-binding, they can hardly be effective.

When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was first in power, scant effort was made at civil service reform, and the recent era of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) only served to further deflate civil servant morale. After over 30 years of stagnation, it has become ever more important, especially in light of the recent transition of power, to put strong civil servants into place to ensure good and effective governance.

With a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Yuan, the KMT is definitely in a position to effect reform. But do they have the resolve?

The past decade has seen a great effort for civil service reform on the parts of France, Singapore, the UK,  the U.S., and even mainland China. Without a greater effort to do the same in Taiwan, society may well abandon all trust in the system, to its own detriment.

Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman

Chinese Version: 台灣文官陷入泥沼