Promoting openness in government Mayor of Seoul | Daily News

Promoting openness in government Mayor of Seoul

Prime Minister, Speaker and Mayor of Soul at the 8th Citynet Congress held in Colombo
Prime Minister, Speaker and Mayor of Soul at the 8th Citynet Congress held in Colombo

Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon is on his second term as Mayor of the Capital of South Korea; a city with a population of over 10 million and an annual city budget of 23 trillion Won (approximately USD 20 billion). In 2011, he introduced the concept of governance based on ‘Communication, Cooperation and Participation’ to encourage greater participation of the citizenry in local governance and to make available administrative information of the city to the public.

As the President of Citynet; a regional network of local government authorities specializing in sustainable urban development, Park believed that cities play an important role in driving sustainable development and that in order to have the former, the city must first listen to its people.

“A bottom-up approach is always more effective and sustainable,” he said in an interview with the Daily News during the sessions of the 8th Citynet Congress held in Colombo this week.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q. You were first a civil activist prior to becoming Mayor, was that transition challenging?

A. It was different, the nature of activities was different but I think it is very important to have the participation of citizens in governance, which I always emphasized during my activism to the bureaucracy.

Q. Did you see instances where ideals had to give way to pragmatism when you were Mayor?

A. I have always emphasized the practical mindset instead of abstract political propaganda. I thought that changing the lives of citizens in the real sense was most important.

Q. You have also encouraged communal programmes such as ‘Seoul Sharing’ and an ‘Energy Welfare Civic Fund’. How did you introduce such concepts in a major city like Seoul which is driven more toward individualism and profit?

A. Korean society traditionally has been community oriented. We have long kept the tradition of community; helping each other in times of crisis, poverty or invasion from other countries. But with economic development we lost this sense of community and it became individualized, personalized and led to the collapse of the community. With my election into office, I tried to bring the sense of community back into our society. Even during this short period, we can witness so many community organizations born within Seoul; many citizens organizing among themselves to do something for the community. I think it is very important to bring real change from the grass roots. Even if we have excellent policies, if you implement them top down, it will not be easy to bring in real change, but from bottom-up, change is very efficient.

Q. Critics have pointed out that in a city of almost over 10 million, it would take a lot of time to listen to everyone and policies often get delayed?

A. There are problems in a city like Seoul. But we have no choice but to bring such bottom up approaches to institute fundamental change. And I think it is working. In the last six years, we could witness many changes which were brought about and the surge of community groups in many villages within the Seoul Metropolitan area, which has spread to other Metropolitan areas too.

Originally, the citizens were very thirsty to cooperate with each other to get things done or to make changes in their lives. So it was very timely for us to start the community movement and it was very natural.

Q. Now that we are in the era of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), coupled with the need to have increasing economic growth, as Mayor where do you think the line should be drawn. For example, would you agree with displacing communities to use their land for economic purposes?

A. We had a period of rapid economic development in the past which was very successful but it also had serious consequences. The inequality, in the economic sense is being broadened and the conflict between the classes; between the poor and rich is getting worse. Plans of economic development, without social welfare protection for human beings will make it impossible to have sustainable economic growth. Since my election, I have emphasized that there needs to be more focus on human development such as social welfare, public health, and so on. In terms of climate change, I brought the initiative, ‘One less Nuclear Power plan’. Traditionally it was said that Nuclear power was more clean and efficient to provide power, but with the effects of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, we were given strong awareness of the danger of nuclear power plants. It is not easy to reduce energy use and produce renewable energy, but we had good governance with the citizens and it was easy to mobilize them and empower them. Within six years, we accomplished the reduction of CO2 emissions comparable to two nuclear power plants. It was actually about motivating the citizens to save energy and produce renewable energy. We had a system of accumulation where the citizens can save energy and receive some incentives or benefits. So more than 1.8 million citizens participated in the initiative and many towns were declared energy self- sufficient during the initiative. All these miracles were made possible due to the civic engagement and empowerment of the citizens.

Q. Usually, the role of the Local Government Authority is envisioned through the provision of basic facilities such as garbage collection, water, sewerage, etc…but have you seen your role as Mayor, going beyond that to want to engage with the citizens and to become a role model city to the world?

A. The Central Government and nation sets the guidelines and the City Government and Municipalities, fill in the contents and implement the policies set by the Central Government. But I think the role of cities is becoming more important. When we first initiated the climate change systems in Rio over 20 years ago, the Central Government was the only player. But under the new climate change system agreed in Paris last year, the city government’s role was given more emphasis so in this sense, I am the President of ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), one of the three big associations for cities, and I am playing a great role in the climate change regime in Paris. A few months ago we held the conference on inclusive growth for Champion Mayors led by the OECD in Seoul. The idea was that overcoming inequality and bringing in inclusive growth cannot be done by the Central Government alone. The National Government is important, but the role of the City Government is also important.

Q. You have launched initiatives like the Digital Civic Mayor’s Office where you collect data on all aspects of the city. Have you been able to transfer this into policy or real change on the ground?

A. Openness in government is very important. Transparency and accountability is the top most priority of the government. Transparency helps the government escape from corruption and adds efficiency. It is our principle to disclose all documents to the citizens, except when there are privacy or security concerns. So around 90 percent of all documents prepared by public servants are open. We have also developed all data and documents, assembled and gathered in a digital platform, so if you come to my office room, you will realize that I can understand everything that goes on in the city in real time, whether it be a disaster, fire, water supply issues, etc. Also I can send feedback to the person in charge. So it is very effective and transparent. Whether it is for big data, census, or IOT, this technology is the fourth industrial revolution. For the time being, this information is only for my use, but we are going to disclose and provide all the systems and knowledge to the citizens in future.

Q. Have you faced much resistance from the bureaucracy when opening up?

A. Of course. The disadvantage of disclosing such information is that it is made available to journalists, so we can be a target of criticism. But I think this can be a medicine for our public servants because it can prevent more serious corruption from occurring. There was some reluctance at the start, but now we have agreed to the policy of transparency in our government.

Q. Mayor of Suwon during the Citynet sessions said that a Mayor’s role is to protect democracy and he highlighted that during the citizen protests against the former President in Seoul, you provided toilet facilities and free wifi to protesters who came to Seoul to protest every Saturday last year? One would think that Local Government would suppress such protests, what made you stand up?

A. An essential part of democracy is the freedom of expression. The right to demonstrate, should be respected and protected at all times. Seoul City Hall Plaza is a good place for assembly and demonstration. So every Saturday or Sunday there was a big demonstration. I think those demonstrations should be protected and guaranteed. We always have protests, one man demonstrations, etc…, and sometimes it is against me. And they say that Mayor Park should leave. But I have asked my staff to provide them with a parasol for shade and water. It is an essential part of democracy.

Q. Do you not consider this as a threat to authority?

A. Speaking out and the voice of citizens is very important. Even if it is wrong. Whether it is right or wrong can be judged by the citizens. I cannot judge, I have to hear the voice of every citizen. Of course I do not feel good when they criticize me, but it is my duty to hear their voice.

Q. South Korea is also facing an ageing population and you have the challenge of making the city inclusive for the ageing, how will you face this challenge?

A. Crisis always can be an opportunity so we have a big population of baby boomers who are in their 50s and early 60s. And without intervention, they simply become the elderly. So we are providing new education to the baby boomers to prepare them for the coming age and to enjoy the second stage in their life. This could be helping them in start start-ups or social contributions, so we have started campuses for them so that they can learn how to prepare for the second stage of their lives. 

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