On June 27, after the legislature’s extraordinary session came to a close, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) sympathized with his hardworking ministers, saying that they should get some rest and take good care of themselves during the break to remain in good health and be able to work effectively.
I am sure the ministers were grateful for Jiang’s concerns, but the question is whether a couple of weeks’ rest can make up for a year of hardship.
The main reason ministers have to work so hard is because of systemic shortcomings. So no matter how sympathetic the premier says he is to his ministers’ hardships, if he is afraid to implement reform and come up with solutions to problems, he will only sound insincere.
The best way to describe the system’s shortcomings is to say that they are the result of a combination of internal and external problems.
In most democracies, politically appointed officials and civil servants are promoted according to different rules. Political appointees obtain their positions through election or through their political parties, while civil servants are promoted based on seniority and job performance. After obtaining a position, political officials focus on party policy and public opinion, while civil servants handle administrative matters. Regardless of how well civil servants do their jobs, they can never reach a position higher than that of administrative deputy minister. If they want to become a political official, they must give up their civil servant benefits and guarantees for the uncertainty of elections and party politics.
This division of labor allows political appointees to focus their energies on executive and legislative issues, or contact with the general public, while civil servants focus on discussing and studying the legal system. Legislative pressures and representation are handled by political appointees. If they do their best, it is a hard job, but not unreasonably so.
However, the division between Taiwan’s political appointees and civil servants is unclear and can shift.
Sometimes, civil servants are appointed in political positions with the advantage that they can take advantage of the skills and experience they obtained as civil servants, thus avoiding a situation in which experts are led by a layman.
However, political appointees can then see them as competitors. In addition, civil servants who are given political appointments are likely to rely on their experience and handle matters themselves. This means that the civil servant who ought to handle important daily matters will have little to do.
Civil service training does not include how to operate in a political environment, but a civil servant who receives a political appointment has to deal with politicians and interest groups, which is likely to be an exhausting experience.
The interaction between Taiwan’s executive and legislative institutions differs from that of most democracies. It almost seems intended to create problems for political appointees.
In the British parliamentary system, political Cabinet appointees only have to attend question time in parliament once every five weeks. The rest of the time, they can focus on their ministerial duties. Questions by members of parliament must be “tabled,” or registered, with the clerks in the Table Office, for the House of Lords, at least 24 hours ahead of question time; for the House of Commons three days in advance. This way questions will adhere strictly to the topic and the work done by the clerks removes much pressure from appointees.
In the US, where the executive and legislative branches are separated, department secretaries do not have to attend US Congress hearings, with the exception of committee hearings. When they do attend, they simply follow protocol and do not have to worry about Congress members from opposition parties asking impromptu questions aimed at embarrassing them.
In Taiwan’s legislature, on the other hand, there are no restrictions on language and content. The sessions are perhaps the longest among all democracies and they differ from other countries in that legislators can bring props, in particular, and they make spurious claims. This all means that ministers come under substantial pressure.
With internal competitive pressure from civil servants and external pressure from the legislature, it is no wonder that ministers are working themselves to exhaustion.
Jiang said that Taiwan needs a leadership team that is firm and calm, and is able to handle matters with presence of mind.
Under the current system, that is a futile wish. As premier, he should start working on reform.
Yang Tai-shuenn is professor and chairperson of Chinese Culture University’s political science department.
Translated by Perry Svensson