Why Talk of Reform if One Cannot Tolerate Appointees with Ideas?
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 12, 2010
Department of Health Director Yang Chi-liang tendered his resignation over the health-care fee increase controversy. After several rounds of dispute, the issue of his resignation remains unsettled. Superficially the dispute is over the cost of health insurance. But if one digs deeper, one discovers it is actually over political appointees' vision and principles. This is a problem that deserves close attention.
A political appointee is someone who must assume responsibility for the failure of his policies. Therefore the most important requirement for a political appointee is a comprehensive policy blueprint and vision. Think of the government as a vast machine. Civil service officials are large or small cogs in this machine. They are important. But they seldom direct the operation of the machine. Political appointees are the engineers whose responsibility it is to oversee the operation of the machine. They design and review the blueprints for the machine. They also direct the operation of the machine.
Of course, sub engineers who oversee individual machines cannot oversee the plant as a whole. From time to time, they must communicate with the chief engineer. They may even need to submit progress reports to the director. The sub engineers and the chief engineer each have their own areas of expertise. They also have their own blind spots. They must communicate with each other frequently. They must coordinate and compromise as they oversee the operations of the plant's machines. If the sub engineer and the chief engineer have major differences over the blueprints and operational strategy for the plant, the sub-engineer is the one who must resign. This describes most peoples' understanding of the government. Cabinet officials are the sub engineers. The premier is the chief engineer. The president is the director.
Allow us to be so bold as to ask the president and the premier how many officials in the current cabinet have any policy concepts, any policy blueprints, any sense of direction, and any vision for the future? Yang Chih-liang is in charge of health-care financing. He vision may be too narrow. He has proposed increasing the price of health care for high-income individuals. Some are critical of his proposal. But Yang is one of the few cabinet officials over the past two years who have any ideas or insights of their own. Most political appointees are good only at crisis management or coping with the media. They good only at obeying the chief engineer or director's commands, and have no opinions of their own. They are good only at self-preservation, at hiding behind bureaucratic smoke and mirrors. They are incapable of offering any views, policies, or reforms of their own. They are unable to lead the public into the future. Our question is simple. How many Republic of China cabinet officials have any policy blueprints of their own? How many of them understand the distinction between a political appointee and a civil service official?
Yang's health-care reforms may not be perfect. UDN editorials have been critical of him. But we prefer controversial political appointees with flawed policy prescriptions to namby-pamby, mealy-mouthed political appointees unwilling to express themselves, unable to offer any policy visions of their own. Society has no shortage of capable individuals with policy prescriptions to offer. Yuan Presidents and the public may attempt to draft them. But secretary-generals may be fearful of public opinion. The legislature may subject them to humiliation. One election follows another, year after year. Everyone knows it is difficult to get anything done in such a political atmosphere. A handful of idealistic individuals may try, only to find themselves being swept away by the raging political currents. Exerting any significant influence under such circumstances is nearly impossible.
Yang Chi-liang's resignation is a mere microcosm of the peverse "elimination of the fittest" in today's political environment. Ma and Wu will of course have little trouble finding a replacement. Health care reform may continue, business as usual. But the resignation has dealt a severe blow to morale in the cabinet. This must not be taken lightly. How can current and future cabinet heads retain their commitment to reform? Lonely policy prescriptions may lack the support of cabinet heads. How can they be sold to a public under the sway of populist sentiment? If future ministry heads reflect upon this sorry record, how committed will they remain to reform? Where exactly is the Ma administration looking for talent?
Over the next two or three years, the Republic of China will face three major challenges. ECFA will soon be signed. Domestic confrontation between the Blue and Green camps will remain serious. Industrial upgrading will remain urgent. The fiscal deficit is worsening. Public and private sector investments are on the wane. By contrast, raising health insurance rates is a relatively simple matter. If such a simple policy issue cannot be handled properly, if political appointees are not permitted to express their own views, how can the public hold out any hope for other more complex policies?
Yang feels that the setbacks to his policies are related to endless annual elections. But we think it has to do with our political ecology and our culture. Leaders with ideals and aspirations will evince no fear of the election culture. They will shield political appointees from such pressures. Reform is possible only when talented people are able to contribute. But the current political environment is just the opposite. Those in the know are concerned. Will Yang's resignation serve as a wake up call to the president and the premier? This may be the key to the Republic of China's future.