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How Did South Korea Combat Corruption?


Doug Whitsett


My chief of staff, author and former reporter W. Scott Jorgensen, recently traveled to Seoul, South Korea as part of a field trip for his graduate program at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. It appears some of the lessons he learned from that experience could be applied to help enhance transparency and accountability at the state government level in Oregon.

South Korea was devastated in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Korean War. With the help of the U.S. government, the people of that nation used the next several decades to transform it into a modern, Westernized industrial powerhouse with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The modernization process was not without unfortunate side effects. The introduction of democratic electoral processes was accompanied by divisive and high-cost political campaigns. By the 1990s, it had resulted in the widespread perception of corruption.

The 1997 South Korean financial crisis was partly blamed on large loans made by state-owned banks to conglomerates known as “chaebols.” The owners of some of those entities had made substantial contributions to political parties.

These potential quid-pro-quos resulted in bribery scandals between 2008 and 2012. Previous South Korean presidents fueled the perception of corruption by issuing many pardons to persons who had been convicted of corruption-related charges.

In response the earned loss of public confidence, South Korean officials began implementing strategies aimed at combating government corruption. Their efforts took many forms and used an approach that combined preventative and punitive measures.

A zero-tolerance policy for corruption was adopted. Anti-corruption policy was centered upon an integrity pact. The pact was signed by both government officials and representatives of companies stating they would not demand or offer bribes, engage in price fixing and would accept punitive measures for violating the agreement. A citizen ombudsman system was established to monitor and audit government functions.

Prosecution efforts were strengthened and officials sought to enlist the civil society in fighting against corruption. Politicians vowed to address it from the top-down and citizens were asked to do the same from the bottom-up. Laws were passed to protect whistleblowers and facilitate investigations into suspected wrongdoing by public officials.

An investigation team was formed in February 1999 to select areas of government services that had a history of corruption scandals, were predisposed to receiving solicitation for favors and that had complicated systems inconveniencing citizens.

What resulted was a revolutionary e-Government system that utilizes technology to enhance citizen input into policies with the understanding that “the collective wisdom changes Seoul for the better.”

An emphasis was placed on communication, participation and the sharing of data, with access to information being viewed as a right for all citizens. Importantly, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) began using the nation’s advance information technology to enhance transparency and better serve and empower its citizens through greater responsiveness. 

Their e-government system has received international recognition and awards for its effectiveness. During the past 12 years, the SMG has placed first six times in the Municipal e-Governance Survey conducted by Rutgers University among the world’s 100 largest cities.

Government procurement procedures that had previously been sources of public mistrust and scandal are now made public through every step of the process, from supplier registration to competitive bidding and through payments made to vendors. Notices, bidding information, the opening of bids and related matters are published online in real time. Non-confidential administrative information and documents are made readily available to citizens through the online system.

Citizen applications for government services are completed together online through a single click. For example, updating information regarding a change of address is automatically forwarded to multiple government agencies.

Welfare benefits that were once managed by different programs, systems and regions were integrated, preventing duplicative payments, increasing efficiency and providing better service and enhanced transparency. This saves citizens significant amounts of time and hassle while helping to protect against fraudulent claims.

A one-stop civil affairs service gives residents real-time information on the handling of their applications. They can check who is handling their case, how it is being reviewed, when final approval can be expected and agency explanations if complications arise.

Their “smart complaint” system was launched in 2010 and handles around 13,000 citizen concerns every month. Citizens are able to register complaints directly to the system by submitting a written report or uploading pictures or videos. They can then track the status of the complaint’s resolution and determine when to expect results.

An e-petition system enables citizens who gather more than 1,000 signatures in 30 days to have the city review their initiative and respond to it. A related citizen suggestion system allows residents to register their ideas and have their peers vote on it for 10 days. Suggestions that receive more than 10 votes are then reviewed by officials during the next 20 days.

Quarterly meetings are held to review those suggestions. As part of the process, a contest is held that awards prize money to those suggestions that are determined to be the best and most useful.

Past citizen suggestions have already been implemented. A late night bus route was designed based on citizen input and collected data. A manmade floating island was created on the Han River that flows through the heart of Seoul at the peoples’ request. A no-smoking area was designated around the Seoul Museum of Art based on the wishes and desires of the public.

The e-Government system even allows direct citizen participation in the SMG’s budgeting process. Around $42 million of the city’s 2016 budget was determined by citizens through participation in the budget committee and direct voting. One million citizens participated, 54 projects were reviewed and 18 were determined in this manner.

Government agency rulemaking is also improved through e-Government. E-hearings allow the public to provide real-time electronic comments on proposed administrative rules.

Seoul’s transportation system has seen the benefits of this state-of-the-art technology. Citizens can report, disseminate and discuss their experience regarding road and traffic conditions with real-time information, helping one another avoid traffic congestion and dangerous situations. For the sake of convenience, the system also includes applications that help enable citizens to find available parking spots in crowded urban areas.

Social media is now a significant component of Seoul’s e-Government model. Twitter alerts are issued for snow or heavy rainfall conditions. Officials have been holding Twitter town hall meetings on the same day of every month since 2012. These social media meetings enable officials to answer questions and discuss issues in real time with concerned citizens.

The Oregon Transparency Website has started our state government in the right direction. Included on that website is information about public meetings and records, the state budget and workforce, revenue and expenditure reports, contracts and procurement, the Public Employees Retirement System, local government, administrative rules, performance measures, legislative reports and much more.

While not quite as comprehensive as the e-Government model used by the SMG, the Oregon Transparency Website can be a great tool for providing information to our citizens.

It seems we could learn how to do a much better job from the example set by the SMG and the South Korean governments. Through using information technology, it is possible to combat widespread, deep-rooted corruption by implementing measures that empower citizens. We can, and should, improve the lives of Oregonians by providing real-time information regarding what their government is doing.

Please remember--if we do not stand up for rural Oregon, no one will.

Best Regards,

Senate District 28



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