By Eugene Lee
In the field of development economics, the term “development capacity of country” refers to its ability to achieve and sustain economic and social growth. The term binds a range of factors across economic, social, political and environmental areas, but ultimately it relies on a nation’s ability to rigorously gather and effectively analyze various data to generate its policies.
Being far from data-educated, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration has continuously been failing on every front to deal with issues primarily due to the lack of understanding of data collection and data interpretation for its policy generation.
I don’t have to go far to point that out. In the Itaewon tragedy, when city and district administration had live data streaming second by second, they still failed to understand and act on it. In the case of a failed policy by the Ministry of Education about half-a-year ago that attempted to make children start elementary school at the ripe young age of five, they hardly used any data at all.
Data is important when running a government for a multitude of reasons. One of them is to make more informed decisions about policy and resource allocation. But it is truly hard to understand what type of data the current administration is using.
For example, just a few months ago, the Yoon administration touted a big change in addressing the falling birthrate in the country by pouring a large sum of money into existing children’s hospitals. In today’s reality, however, if you visit any rural pediatric clinic, you’ll find lines, sometimes up to 30 parents with their sick and crying children, trying to get treatment. How did that happen?
Apparently, the money went into creating or upgrading child wards at large university hospitals, and those are currently idle. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of a child ending up in an emergency room is rather low unless the child’s needs are not properly addressed at smaller pediatric clinics, where the probability of a child catching a cold is generally very high, especially during the change of seasons. So, inadvertently, these overcrowded pediatric clinics are also becoming disease-spreading centers, worsening the situation even further. How could one possibly call that a positive outcome of the policy?
It is understandable that young couples today are delaying, or even giving up on, having children, driving the birthrate trend down even further. Avoiding hardships of child-rearing is one thing, but when the young generation is seeing their money being misplaced or wasted, they give up hope regarding the government. And there is yet another statistic that tells that story — a growing number of people are choosing to immigrate.
Data must help the government be more transparent and accountable to the public. Yet, for the last year, data on government spending, and especially government officials, has either been withheld, citing personal privacy issues, or has never been collected in the first place. For the public to understand how their taxes are being spent, it has become more difficult. To make matters even worse, the data has become politicized, as pro-Yoon think tanks are attempting to pump up the numbers. And the public is not happy about it, as yet another piece of data indicates: the falling approval rating of the Yoon administration.
The Yoon administration has expressed concerns about how the previous Moon Jae-in administration handled data. It is important to note that the findings of the special investigation commission have not yet been made public. I am not defending the Moon administration in any way. However, I believe that we should allow experts to do their jobs. For example, when measuring weather data, we can rely on various data and use various tools. You can use a thermometer to measure temperature, a barometer to measure humidity fluctuations, or even an anemometer to measure the speed of the wind. Similarly, it is important to consider the methods used to collect data.
Whether the Moon administration’s approach was “incorrect” or “intentionally misleading” is a question for the agencies responsible for training experts and overseeing data gathering. The current administration should not decide about the quality of research. Another point of critique is that the previous administration could have done more to make data accessible to the public.
One thing is clear: using just one kind of tool or one kind of data is not enough, as it won’t give you a large enough picture. Sometimes you need a set of tools and data sets to corroborate your findings. And it seems that the current administration has consistently failed to do so over and over again. Just a few months earlier, taking up a fight against individuals using deposit money to buy and rent out another apartment, or what has been framed as “jeonse” cartels, saw the administration passing a legislation package to fix the issue. Nevertheless, the mechanism did not work, and today, depositors in Suwon City are struggling to recover their lease money in yet another fraud scheme by one family that was involved in several hundred apartment contracts. The case is still ongoing.
Data can help our government to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of governance. In transportation, for example, data on traffic patterns can improve the design of roads and intersections. In education, data on student performance can help improve its quality of education. These days, as the Yoon administration is gearing up to amend the health care system, my only hope is that it does so by relying on proper data. But in doing so, it must also do it transparently.
Eugene Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturing professor at the Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. Specializing in international relations and governance, his research and teaching focus on national and regional security, international development, government policies and Northeast and Central Asia.