Public Organization Review

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 551–564 | Cite as

Development, Diversification, and Legitimacy: Emergence of the Committee-Based Administrative Model in South Korea



Recently, a committee-based policy making model has become an important element of South Korea’s administrative toolkit. However, most scholars and politicians recognize the inefficiency of this type of decision-making model. Why, then, does the committee-based model continue to gain traction? Taking an institutional perspective, this paper details the processes at work in the legitimation of administrative models in the Korean context, and proposes a framework for understanding how the committee-based system has become predominant. Korea’s rapid development over the past half-century has led to the diversification of groups from whom the government must seek legitimacy, and it is argued that the committee-based system continues to be adopted due to its ability to incorporate these diverse voices into the policy making process, while at the same time allowing the government to further its developmental agenda. The implications of this study for understanding the processes of administrative development are discussed.


Organizational Change Committee System Legitimacy South Korea 


Although most scholars and politicians recognize the inefficiency of the committee organization in South Korea, the number of administrative committees continues to grow. This paper argues that a key driver of the growth of the committee system is its ability to act as legitimating mechanism for policy that embodies potentially conflicting values, despite its inefficiency. The concept of legitimacy has been recognized as a key component in successful policy implementation, particularly when policy is controversial or entails significant costs for those affected (Coombs 1980). When policy-making bodies face legitimacy challenges, they can encounter opposition from citizens that constrains their ability to act effectively, and, based on this, necessary but difficult initiatives can result in policy failure. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms, both historical and institutional, by which policy making bodies gain or lose legitimacy is a crucial question for public administration that has significant practical implications for public managers.

Recently in South Korea, central government policy makers and presidents have increasingly came to rely on a committee-based model of policy making in the development of significant new initiatives, a model which marks a significant break from the purely top down policy making style of the developmental period (Chibber 1999; Minns 2001). The committee model currently employed works to include representatives of diverse sectors of Korean society into to the policy making process in an attempt to create an integrated vision for action. While government remains the most significant actor in this process, ideally, through this process of representation and incorporation government is able to secure the acquiescence of important constituent sets in its organizational environment and thereby establish the legitimacy necessary to pursue significant new initiatives.

This paper examines the emergence of the committee-based policy model in Korea using the lens of institutional legitimacy, and focuses on the Green Growth Committee initiated under former president Myung-bak Lee as a representative example of this new policy development framework. Drawing on theories of organizational institutionalism, two processes driving the adoption of the committee system are identified, including a diversification of the constituent set as well as the emergence of legitimate administrative principles. Based on this analysis, a model of legitimacy-based institutional change emerges with is highly relevant to the developmental context.

This study proceeds as follows. Firstly, the concept of legitimacy in institutional organization theory is discussed, and two forces of legitimation are identified. Next, these processes are applied to Korea’s development, followed by an analysis of the emergence of the committee system. Finally, the legitimation strategy of the developmental state is revisited and a model of environment-based choice of administrative models is introduced. This study attempts to shed light on an unexamined phenomena of South Korea’s contemporary policy making toolkit, and has implications for scholars focusing on the legitimacy and effectiveness of government in developmental contexts.

Bases of Legitimacy in Institutional Organization Theory

The institutional turn in organization theory in the 1970s brought the concept of legitimacy to the fore in our understanding of organizational development and change (Deephouse and Suchman 2008). Legitimacy should be understood as an organizational resource such that organizations that possess it will have much greater freedom in determining their structure, procedures, and other organizational elements (Child 1972). Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) argue that when organizational legitimacy is lacking, the result will be increased criticism and attacks against it by stakeholders.

One of the primary foundations of organizational legitimacy is how well the organization reflects the sociopolitical makeup of society (Aldrich and Fiol 1994). In this sense, legitimacy is a relational quality conferred by some relevant constituent set which affords a given organization strong operational benefits. Organizational legitimacy flows from key stakeholders who accept the existence and purpose of an organization as legitimate relative to existing norms and laws. More broadly, cultural values provide a general framework within which the behavior of an organization can be understood, and organizations attain legitimacy to the extent that they can be accounted for by the dominant cultural or discursive paradigm (Meyer and Scott 1983). Organizations that cannot be accounted for in this way will face challenges from the public, and thus the more legitimate an organization, the more complete will its cultural account be, and fewer questions will be asked about it.

Meyer and Scott (1983) argue that it is thus those who have the resources necessary to challenge the organization will necessarily be a source of legitimacy. These groups “constrain, construct, and empower” organizations and actors (Suchman 1995, pg. 571), and as such, the configuration of a given administrative system may “reflect the resources and power” of its makers, and tends to serve their interests (Campbell 2004). This power-oriented perspective holds that the institutional framework of a given administrative system can be understood as the outcome of a process of struggle between those with significant resources who have a stake in the outcome of administrative structure and decision making. Conversely, organizations which fail reflect the embedded interests of their environment in this way can face strong legitimacy challenges, and ultimately fail to achieve their objectives (March and Olsen 1983).

In contrast to this view of administrative institutions as the outcome of the relative power resources of given constituent sets, the institutionalization of a given set of organizational forms or principles over time can itself function as a source of legitimacy for reform, as well as constrain it. Organizations and their practices tend to become infused with values and norms which go beyond their technical characteristics (Selznick 1957, 1996), and new reforms which do not fit with the dominant paradigm can be rejected. In this sense, administrative principles, once they come to exert a legitimating force of their own, become part of the general system of constraints imposed on future reforms. This system of constraints “defines the opportunity set and therefore the kinds of organizations that will come into existence” (North 1993, pg. 62). Administrative principles that have gained legitimacy can function as a starting point of reform, contextualizing new reforms by facilitating a general understanding of their purpose among relevant constituent sets. In this sense, legitimate administrative principles facilitate the “adequacy of an organization as theory” (Meyer and scott 1983, pg. 201; Jepperson 1991). Alternatively, some organizational forms and principles can become delegitimized over time, which limits the choice set of strategies by which current organizations can secure legitimacy (Zucker 1983).

Before turning to the emergence of the committee system in South Korea, the next section briefly recapitulates the country’s development path from an administrative perspective, focusing on the diversification of the constituent sets to which the state has become beholden for legitimacy. Secondly, the emergence of legitimate administrative principles with which new reforms must be consistent are also outlined.

Korea's Developmental Path: Constituent Sets and Administrative Principles

From its establishment in 1948, South Korea has experienced fundamental changes in nearly all aspects of society (KIPA Korean Institute of Public Administration 2008). While the pace of economic and social development has proceeded continuously, nevertheless a distinct shift in administrative philosophy occurs roughly from the period of Korea's first non-military president after the authoritarian period in 1993. Previous to the presidency of Kim Young-sam (1993–1998), Korean policy was driven by government and private sector interests almost exclusively, with little meaningful role played by either labor or civil society. Following the democratic transition, however, a more inclusive governance-based approach was adopted, which better reflected the realities of a relatively diversified constituent set. This section outlines how the administrative decision making mechanisms favored at each point throughout this process were a reflection the dominant constituent set that emerged as a result of the policy taken in the preceding period. Table 1 summarizes this framework, which the next two sections flesh out in more detail.
Table 1

Dominant institutions and constituent sets during Korean development


Bureaucratic period (1960s ~ 1980s)

Governance period (1990s ~ 2010s)






Emergent constituent set



Civil society

Emergent value

Economic development


Quality of life


State bureaucracy



Development and the Emergence of New Constituent Sets

Following the coup d'état in 1961, the government was faced with few established groups with sufficient resources to challenge the implementation of a strong state. Democratic government had been denied to Koreans during the colonial period (1910 ~ 1945), and despite the South’s first elected president, Syngman Rhee (1948–1960), coming to power through popular ballot, the government continued to rule in a largely autocratic manner, with the bureaucracy used as a means to secure political patronage (Cheng, Haggard, & Kang 1998). As such, after a short and turbulent democratic period following the downfall of Rhee, the central government easily slipped back into an authoritarian form. Secondly, the Korean War (1950–1953) destroyed much of the country’s industrial assets (Rho & Lee 2010), and consequently there were few private sector concerns large enough to challenge the government's dominance. Finally, a series of land reforms undertaken by under the US military government (1945–1948) and the Syngman Rhee administration essentially neutralized the ability of the landed class from posing a challenge to the government (Kwon & Yi 2009).

Within this administrative context, the government enjoyed a substantial amount of autonomy with which to implement a strong state administrative system (Evans 1995). Policy making become concentrated in the super-ministerial Economic Planning Board (EPB) and the government installed bureaucrats in all important positions within the Ministry of Finance, which came to oversee the operation of the country's largely nationalized financial system (Kim 2011). This remodeling of the state allowed the government to dominate both the policy process as well as resource allocation through a highly centralized and coherent bureaucratic-authoritarian administrative model (Chibber 1999).

Tightly controlling access to domestic markets, the government selected a handful of national firms, or chaebol, to drive development. These businesses were extended cheap credit, given access to foreign technologies, and ultimately were allowed to operate in an environment with little competition (Kim et al. 2004; Park 2003). By the mid-1960s, chaebol groups had emerged as the country's driving economic force (Ferris, Kim, & Kitsabunnarat 2003). As an emergent constituent set, the government came to be increasingly reliant on the chaebol to support policy initiatives. Over time, the chaebol pushed for market based reforms, thus moving the state away from the purely bureaucratic model, a process which accelerated with the 5th Five Year Economic Plan of 1982, when the government implemented a number of market friendly reforms, significantly weakening its control over the economy (Kim et al. 2004; Lee, Lee, & Lee 2002). These reforms, driven by the interests of the chaebol, continued into the 1990s, and ultimately resulted in the country falling prey to the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) of 1997.

One significant reform necessary in the wake of the crisis was labor market reform, which was supported by the chaebol but opposed by labor, who had emerged as a new constituent set with which the government had to contend. Reforms would ultimately dismantle the model of “developmental citizenship,” wherein workers enjoyed strong job protections and stable employment, if not high wages (Chang 2007). However, after years of improved wages and increased organization, labor suddenly presented itself as a significant constituent set which encouraged the government of Kim Dae-jung to take a different approach. The Kim government created the Tripartite Commission, a corporatist organization that brought together leaders from government, business, as well as the country's labor movements. Based on the new committee structure, the president invited not only the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), with its long and close relationship to the state, but also the newer and until then illegal Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), thus recognizing the independent labor union as a legitimate party to the negotiations and a condition of broad consensus (Kwon 2003). The committee system was founded in order to attempt to reconcile the conflict of interest between industry and labor that the financial crisis exasperated.

The Tripartite Commission, whose structure reflected the two dominant constituent sets, business and labor, marks the beginning of a new period of governance in Korea as it signals the end of a purely top down and market driven decision making model. Before turning to the Green Growth Committee, which represents the contemporary form of the committee-based administrative model, the next section briefly discusses a number of administrative principles which also underpin the legitimacy of the committee system.

Legitimate Administrative Principles as Reform Constraints

The emergence of the committee system as a favored administrative model was the outcome of a historical process whereby economic development produced new constituent sets with whom the government sought legitimacy for its developmental program. On the other hand, certain administrative principles had over time essentially entrenched themselves as sources of legitimacy of government reform, a process which is highlighted in the institutional legitimacy literature (Deephouse & Suchman 2008). In particular, a preference for small government, flexible governance arrangements, as well as trend of organizational integration were important factors legitimating the adoption of the committee structure.

The experience of authoritarianism in the early days of government-driven economic development produced a deeply rooted aversion to big government among Korean people, and as such Koreans have consistently favored small government. In Korea, a big government means regulatory and civil interference by bureaucratic authorities, which is anachronistic in the present circumstances. From the 1980s, all administrations have pledged to maintain a small government (Baek 2002; Yeom et al. 2007). In the Korean context, the debate about small government is closely related to the question of how economic growth should be managed, the idea being that economic development driven by the government means a big government, while market driven development is interpreted to mean a small government. This is in contrast to the governing culture of the West, where a small government theory was developed in contrast to a welfare policy that requires a big government in terms of the number of personnel as well as budget. In fact, Korea has had no experience of big government in the Western sense, and Fig. 1 shows the relative smallness of the Korean government compared to other OECD countries (OECD Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development 2009).
Fig. 1

Government jobs as a percentage of labor market

The committee system fits well with the preference for small government, as it does not require the creation of new permanent organizations or an expansion of the workforce. This is primarily the case because the committee system is based on the participation of non-government officials such as industry and labor representatives, as well as NGOs and independent experts, who do not inflate the government payroll, thereby satisfying the small government constraint (Oh 2002).

Secondly, flexible governance arrangements have emerged as a major government reform model worldwide (Peters 1996), and Korea has not escaped this trend. As the 2008 global economic slowdown has shown, the ability of government to react to environmental change has rapidly become an ever-greater necessity, and flexible government has always been an important principle in the Korean context. Moreover, as the constituent sets that the government confronts have diversified, new decision making models have become necessary, and the importance of bringing diverse voices and technical expertise to the policy making process has increased. Again, like the small government principle, these conditions recommend the committee administrative model, as a given committee be easily created or abandoned based on the current set of social, economic, or environmental issues that confront policy makers. In essence, the committee is a flexible organization that can meet both a small government constraint and new social problems that require government policies.

Finally, organizational integration entails that when a new function required by government arises, a new and permanent government organization is not created. Rather, the new function is integrated into an existing government organization. In Korea, organizational integration has been a method for successive governments to deal with increasingly diverse values grounded in new constituent sets, and every newly elected President has tried to reform the government, appealing to the public’s preference for small government, and thereby integrated various government organizations in order to accommodate new functions (Yeom et al. 2007). Table 2 shows how much integration has taken place in the Korean government. Currently, the majority of government organizations perform more than two kinds of functions that were originally separately operated.
Table 2

Trend of organizational integration


Park Chung-hee Administration

Lee Myung-bak Administration

Single organizations

Economic Planning Board, Min. of Foreign Affairs, Min. of Home Affairs, Min. of Finance, Min. of Justice, Min. of National Defense, Min. of Education, Min. of Agriculture and Forestry, Min. of Commerce & Industry, Min. of Construction, Min. of Transportation, Min. of Postal Service, Min. of Public Information

Min. of Unification, Min. of Justice, Min. of National Defense, Min. of Environment

Integrated organizations

Min. of Health and Social Affairs

Min. of Strategy and Finance, Min. of Education Science and Technology, Min. of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Min. of Public Administration and Security, Min. of Culture Sports and Tourism, Ministry for Food Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, Min. of Knowledge Economy, Min. of Health & Welfare, Min. of Employment and Labor, Min. of Land Transport and MaritimeAffairs, Min. of Gender Equality & Family, Korea Communication Commission

Both the small government and flexibility constraint cap the size of government organizations and favor temporary organizations. In some ways, this has been a great obstacle for government reform as the developmental program of the state evolved based on the emergence of new constituent sets with competing values, and organizational integration has been used as a method to deal with this problem. The administrative principles discussed in this section are not necessarily tied to any individual constituent set, however, but represent constraints placed upon government determined by citizens’ perception of the role of government, and what has worked in the past. The committee-based administrative model, while driven by the need to integrate the values of emergent constituent sets, nevertheless is also consistent with these three principles. The next section focuses on the Green Growth Committee as a representative example of the committee-based administrative model which both reflects diverse legitimating constituent sets and is consistent with the administrative principles sketched above.

The Green Growth Committee: a Contemporary Governance Paradigm

The global economic slowdown of 2008 encouraged massive stimulus spending on the part of governments around the world, and in July of 2009, the Korean government announced its own plans to stimulate the economy by pledging to invest 107 trillion won ($48.5 billion), an amount equal to about 2 % of the country's annual gross domestic product. Over a 5 year period, the package was projected to create 1.81 million jobs (Cho 2009). In order to attain legitimacy for this new developmental paradigm, the government adopted the committee administrative model incorporate diverse voices into the policy making process. The President's Commission on Green Growth was established in late 2008 and met for the first time on February 16th, 2009.

In addition to business and labor, the Green Growth Committee also included independent experts as well as civil society leaders in the policy making process. Korea’s civil society has played a crucial role in driving the institutionalization of democracy in the country (Kim 2002), and the Green Growth Committee mirrors the growing diversity of values in Korean society in both its mission and its structure, integrating government, private sector interests, civil society leaders, and independent experts into the policymaking process. The first 5 year Green Growth plan developed by the Committee was released in July of 2009 and emphasized green-based quality-of-life development of the economy as an integral component of job creation and economic competitiveness (Presidential Commission on Green Growth).

The operations of the Green Growth Committee illustrate the value of the administrative model as a tool to integrate diverse values and thereby gain legitimacy for the prevailing development paradigm. Since the 1960s, the Korean government has placed a strong emphasis on economic growth, and economic values continue to be at the heart of Green Growth policy. However, the government’s vision has undergone a highly symbolic transformation, shifting emphasis from “quantitative economic development” to “qualitative green growth” (Park 2010). This is the result of a greater diversification of the constituent sets upon whom government relies for the legitimacy of its economic program. Moreover, the integrative approach of the Green Growth Committee has been instrumental in shaping Green Growth policy.

While the Green Growth Committee shares with previous presidential committee systems the goal of bringing together representatives of relevant constituent sets, the primary difference between the GGC and its predecessors is its emphasis on value integration rather than simply negotiating between the conflicting values of interested parties. This can be seen by contrasting the approach of the GGC with its predecessor, the Sustainable Development Committee (SDC) instituted under Roh Moo-hyun (see Table 3). Green Growth policy differs from sustainable development policy in that economic strategy is formulated in harmony with environmental development, rather than in opposition to it. Because of this goal of integration, Green Growth Policy requires an innovative approach (Aghion, Hemous, & Veugelers 2009). The SDC took a zero-sum approach of negotiating between the conflicting values held by different constituent sets, a strategy leaves no party completely satisfied. The Green Growth Committee is distinct in that it takes a value-added approach.
Table 3

The SDC and the GGC


Sustainable Development Committee

Green Growth Committee


Focus on environment

Focus on growth


Conflict resolution

Value integration


Conflict between economy and environment

Virtuous circle between economy and environment

In important role of the committee-based administrative model is its potential to act as an instrument to resolve conflicts between competing values. This process is achieved through the incorporation of the relevant constituent sets into the policy making process. As such, the GGC fully integrates a range of parties into the policymaking process, intending to integrate the values held by these different parties into a single vision. This strategy is important in order for the government to sector the legitimacy necessary in order to further pursue economic development and continue to play a role in the economy. The highly involved role of the government in developing the agenda of Green Growth policy highlight that the government continues to play a significant role in shaping market incentives and setting developmental objectives.


A Model of Legitimation in the Developmental Context

This study has argued that the emergence of the committee-based administrative model has been the outcome of two distinct but interrelated processes. On the one hand, a historical diversification of significant constituent sets, which seen the emergence of chaebol, labor, and civil society groups, has driven a transformation of the top down model of governance which characterized the developmental period. On the other hand, the emergence of a set of legitimate administrative principles has constrained the choice set of organizational forms. Taking these processes into account, this section builds on the ideas presented by Suchman (1995) and proposes a model of institutional development applicable to the Korean context and potentially to other developmental contexts.

Suchman (1995) suggests three processes by which a given organization may achieve legitimacy for itself. Firstly, an organization may actively manipulate the environment wherein it operates in order to found and define institutions. Secondly, organizations may seek to select among competing institutional environments, searching for a constituent set which values the type of exchanges that the organization is structured to provide. This is a kind of partial alignment of the organization with limited dimensions of the external environment. Finally, organizations may attempt to conform to a given environment, manipulating their own structure and processes in order to situate them within the given institutional context as a reflection of it (Suchman 1995).

Applying Suchman (1995)’s framework of externally focused legitimation strategies to the Korean context, it is immediately obvious that each of these strategies was adopted by the Korean government at different times in response to different environmental make ups. This framework is summarized in Table 4. During the early years of development, the Korean state faced no significant constituent set to whom it was beholden for legitimacy. At this time, the government acted in a highly entrepreneurial manner, selecting for itself the administrative model, namely, authoritarian bureaucracy, which maximized its ability to implement its chosen policy. Particularly in the founding days of the developmental state as an institution, relative government autonomy from established interests plays a key role (Skocpol 1985; Evans 1995) as the state seeks to impose performance orientated constraints on industry and force them towards collective goals (Chibber 1999).
Table 4

Framework of legitimation strategy choice

Constituent sets

Power balance

Legitimation strategy




Single dominant






As development advanced, however, the chaebol emerged as a significant constituent set, in a sense creating a bi-polar power situation. In order to secure legitimacy and continue to guide development, the government made significant changes to its administrative model, primarily through the introduction of more market-based controls. As shown, these reforms were driven by the interests of the chaebol, and enhanced the power of this group. This selective strategy of legitimation thus captures the legitimation strategy of the developmental state in such a bipolar situation.

Finally, as Korea's constituent sets further diversified, firstly through the emergence of labor and secondly of numerous civil society groups, in order to further pursue its developmental agenda the state adopted a reflective legitimation strategy. In this phase, both the governance model as well as the values that policy making embodies reflect the complexity of diverse legitimating constituent sets. The Green Growth Committee, which integrates the representative agendas of numerous constituent sets, is the primary example of this legitimation strategy.


The Future of the Committee System

As society grows complex and diverse, various interest groups come into conflict with each other. The committee is good at reflecting diverse voices and values through incorporating and representing diverse interest groups. The committee can thus provide an opportunity for resolving conflicts through discussion and negotiation, and conflicts between diverse interest groups continue to emerge. A Korean model of good governance must be participatory, consensus oriented, and inclusive (Jung 2014, p. 285–302), and the committee-based system has the potential to advance these values. Due to the increasing diversity of constituent sets from whom the government’s developmental goals draw their legitimacy, policy-orientated committees have continued to increase in recent years, as Fig. 2 shows.
Fig. 2

Number of committee organizations in the Korean central government

The processes of legitimatization outlined above in conjunction with the organizational principles embedded in the administrative context will influence government reform in Korea's developmental state in the years to come. The necessity of incorporating diverse constituents sets into to the policymaking process will also follow the process of organizational integration while adhering to the constraints of small, flexible government structures. In the future, a model of policy development as depicted in Fig. 3 may be adopted. During the first stage of reform projects, a collective problem definition and vision sharing stage is conducted within the committee organization. At this stage, the goal of government action is value integration. As values become integrated, the second stage of policy implementation begins. As an integrated vision requires resources from a number of specialized government organizations, value integration is followed by functional integration, which occurs at the organizational level. In this sense, the committee structure acts as a pilot organization defining cooperative values and goals, which are then implemented by the appropriate functionally integrated organization.
Fig. 3

Framework of organizational reform

Organizational integration takes place for similar functions, while value integration by committee is intended to harmonize conflicting functions and values. In terms of transformative government reform, we can here recognize that a sequence of integration takes place. First, value integration by committee integrates disparate values into a unified policy direction. Subsequently, a functional integration at the level of organizations takes place were integrated functions derived from the value integration of the committee result are delegated to government organizations for implementation.

This framework sees reform as characterized by the integration of diverse values, and a number of cleavages within Korean society are emerging to which the committee-based model of reform may be applied. Green Growth policy was the first case of value integration, and represents a value convergence between the economy and the environment. In the future, we may expect a value integration between economic values and welfare. Until now, in Korea welfare policy that promotes equality has been recognized as standing opposed to economic values. Through the process of value integration, a new convergence will take place that attempts to link welfare policies to economic growth engines, for example medical industries and care work industries. In addition, another cleavage is beginning to materialize between the values of the younger generation and the preceding generation, which is exasperated by a rapidly greying population. As such, there is a pressing requirement for convergence between the values of these two constituent sets. A major challenge here, however, is that unlike various groups representing environmental and social justice concerns, no group represents the youth in the same way.

Post-integration, organizational efficiency is dependent on the extent to which the functions being integrated are similar. Thus, the similarity of functions is the crucial variable in this process. However, the value integration of the committee focuses on conflicting values, which are representative of opposing functions. Value integration in governmental committees is thus a potentially much more difficult process than merely redefining the scope of a government organization. While this process should be understood on the one hand as a mechanism of government organization reform, on the other value integration has the more ambitious goal of a qualitative redefinition of the role that government organizations play.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Public ServiceChung-Ang UniversitySeoulKorea
  2. 2.Faculty of Public AdministrationHigher School of EconomicsMoscowRussia

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