What you need to know
Chen Shih-chung said the first thing he would like to do as a mayor is build a team with a shared sense of trust. He considers this to be important because his own abilities can’t compare with that of 80,000 people working together. “If a group is involved in a common project, this is essential.”
Taipei’s mayoral election is coming up. Compared to other counties and cities, the race between blue, green, and independent candidates in Taipei is especially tight. Chen Shih-chung used to head Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), showing up at press briefings daily over the past two years. Now he represents the DPP in the Taipei mayoral election. I asked Chen, a first-time candidate, about the changes in his role after starting his campaign. What philosophy does he hold on how to overhaul the leadership system of the Taipei city government?
Chen Shih-chung, amid his hectic schedule, came to Drink with Mario’s recording studio accompanied by his aides. He didn’t wear the full suit he was most commonly seen in at the events he attended during the election campaign. Instead, he wore the white shirt of his “commander” period leading the CECC. (His aides said it was to suit the relaxed vibes of the podcast.)
During the interview, Chen switched between Mandarin and Taiwanese while speaking about his policies. For him, leading a city is a new experience; he has neither the hands-on experience in municipal affairs of , nor the practical experience of engaging with the electorate that has as a legislator in parliament. But he was quite confident about his experience serving as Health minister, a government-appointed official. He said he’d like to rebuild a culture of trust for the 80,000 civil servants of Taipei city government, just like what he did at the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) and the CECC over the last five years.
Mario Yang: How did the idea of running for Taipei Mayor come about? What do you think of Taipei as it is now?
Chen Shih-chung: I’ve been living in Taipei for a long time. I grew up in Taipei. For me, Taipei is a young person who has potential but seems to be at a loss.
As we know, Taiwan’s GDP per capita is going beyond US$36,000. It’s a great time for city development, but Taipei didn’t seem to be particularly prepared over the past few years to take advantage of new opportunities. Aside from some routine projects, the city government seemed to have put a pause on new projects over the last three or four years. Policies like urban regeneration or net-zero emissions used to be discussed with great enthusiasm, but the discussions seemed to have quieted down in recent years. Some said that this was due to the pandemic, but we also saw a lot of businesses proactively reorganizing and preparing during the pandemic. Although it’s inconvenient, we should prepare to respond when the economy recovers.
It’s a pity that the Taipei city government is currently having a leadership breakdown. When I was the Chairman of the Taipei Dental Association, I had quite a lot of interactions with the city government. The staff were good and competent, but a lack of sound leadership prevented the city government from unleashing its capacity. I feel that this was a shame. Who can make Taipei better? At this stage in my life, I feel that this is something I can apply myself to.
MY: Should you get elected, this would be the DPP’s return to power in the capital city after a 24 year absence. In what areas do you see opportunities to integrate resources from the central government to make Taipei better?
CHC: The first is transportation infrastructure. In fact, Taipei is quite resistant to outside resources, which I don’t understand. For example, we noticed Taipei was reluctant to put forward any proposals when we carried out the . Included in the Program was transportation infrastructure, for which Taipei barely submitted any plans. At that time, I thought: Why not step up and make an effort to apply? Later I found that there were few applications coming from Taipei for all programs, including the long-term care one from the MOHW. So, the subsidies that the central government granted Taipei were relatively little in the past. This was because Taipei was not willing to make an effort to apply for the funding. I found this rather surprising to be honest, but it has always been like this.
What I can work on, apart from transportation, is urban regeneration. I’ll see if we can release some public land for use in social welfare and long-term care, like community centers or residential facilities. In this respect, there are a couple of subsidy schemes at both the local and central government levels. This is an essential part of my campaign platform.
MY: How would your team look for talent, to do the things you would like to do well?
CHC: I still need to reiterate that the city government will not be restructured again should I get elected. It already has 80,000 civil servants, and they are highly experienced, having been undertaking the work of each department and bureau for a long time. All I need to do is find a head for each department since it in itself is already a strong team. As long as these department heads excel in appointing the right people, and then are entrusted with responsibilities and my full trust, that’s about all there is. Surely I need to have my own views on things and a vision for municipal affairs. Then we can work with our partners to realize it together.
Not everyone knows how to understand people and employ them effectively. Knowing how to do so is the key to being a good political official. Whether one’s vision is great enough is no doubt important, but I think being able to identify and appoint the right individuals is most important of all. This is tough. Just look at how many department heads changed within the Taipei city government over the past few years. Had they known how to appoint the right persons, would this still be the case?
MY: Should you get elected, what would you like to accomplish at the start of your term?
Many people ask this question, probably because as soon as Mayor Ko came into office, he had those bus-only lanes removed and therefore instantly made everyone feel the effects [of the new administration] (smiling). It’d be hard for me to do such a thing. This kind of thing also occurs less frequently now. Rather, the first thing I would like to do is build an effective employees-and-supervisors organizational structure. Therefore, when I take office, I would carefully compose a letter for all the employees and let them know about the new boss’s attitude, ideas, and so on. This would win their confidence in me and kick-start the reform of the organization’s culture. This is what I consider the most important of all, because me doing a lot of things alone can’t compare with 80,000 people working on some things together. If a group is involved in a common project, this is essential.
The urban regeneration I mentioned earlier is also vitally important. I would love to work on the Xinwei resettled tenements. I was quite moved when I visited the site. It surprised me that this kind of place still exists in Taipei. Starting with as early as , former mayors had set these apartments as the priority target for reconstruction. But to this day they still remain the same. Everybody suffers. As someone who wants to be the mayor, I feel that if I can handle this kind of thing well, I’d feel somewhat accomplished.
MY: You said you would reconstruct the organizational culture. What kind of team culture do you think you’re going to build?
CHC: I might sound a little carried away, but I feel I’ve built a team [at the MOHW] that everyone involved fully trusts. As you can see, over more than five years, MOHW established eight laws and amended 90 laws, totaling 332 articles. In fact hardly anyone at the Legislative Yuan was willing to change the law. If we amended one article, we would also need to change the other 20. This was a lot of work for us. It was also usually not so pleasant and smooth a process communicating with others regarding law amendments at the Legislative Yuan (smiling).
The reason we were able to amend so many laws was because all of our colleagues were willing to work hard. Take the low birth rate policy for example. The budget for it was NT$15.1 billion when I first took office, and now it’s more than NT$80 billion. In the beginning the budget for long-term care was $4 billion, and now it’s more than NT$60 billion. In addition, the budget implementation rate was consistently good. We also successfully executed NT$6.8 billion for the first phase of the social safety net program, and will strive for a subsidy of $40.7 billion for the second phase.
I’m not saying that we’re good at spending money. Looking at it from another angle, our team was willing to put forward proposals to compete for funding. In fact the majority of government agencies would not like it because the more money to expend, the more work to do. For civil servants, their salaries are fixed. They are reprimanded if they don’t finish their work. As a result, obtaining more budget to execute is sometimes something civil servants would rather not want. So, as you can see, Taipei later rarely applied to the central government for funding. It was because they’d prefer not to.
But at the MOHW, on the other hand, everybody was willing to make an effort to apply for resources and funding. We also did our utmost to amend laws, made plans to execute, and engaged with local governments. Why? Because our team was full of expectations about our projects and had great confidence in me. I would never shift the responsibility for the things we unanimously decided to do to my subordinates. I always made my attitude clear on the floor of the Legislative Yuan and took full responsibility. Because of this, all of our colleagues were willing to continue to work hard.
That’s exactly the culture I would like to build, a culture in the Taipei city government that can reignite the passion and motivation of civil servants. This all originates with the trust in the management. Then the senior officers will also be willing to get their heads down and work hard together, feeling proud of being civil servants.
As for how to build trust, for me, I always take a collaborative attitude and extend my hand out first to make the other party trust me. Then we work together. Once this kind of trust has been built, it would be immensely powerful.
MY: From serving as Deputy Minister of the Department of Health, to Health and Welfare Minister, you’ve had eight years of experience as a government-appointed official but none of the experience of running for political office in the civil service system. What have you realized or learned so far?
CHC: I feel the election in itself is a rather cruel event. Experiencing this kind of cruelty and heartlessness makes people better understand the importance of voting. In other words, having passed a test like this, I’ll be able to see the political situation when I become mayor. This should somewhat help with the direction of our administration. However, the pressure is high indeed. I’ve also just gone through such an experience.
Running for election is hard work, but there’s also a heart-warming side to it. Yesterday, I was campaigning in a market, and a woman held onto me and thanked me; after only three sentences, her face was covered in tears. You can really feel the enthusiasm. Being able to engage with voters in person and see their expectations is also sometimes a quite memorable part of the campaign.
MY: Did your political philosophy somewhat change after you went from working in public service to running for office now?
CHC: There have been two significant changes. One occurred probably when I oversaw epidemic prevention; the experience had a huge influence on my outlook on life. The other took place during this election cycle. I’m going to talk about the election first. It hasn’t been a long time, and no one knows now how this election will turn out. It’s just that within this short period of time, I realized I had become hesitant about what I believed previously. In the past I believed as long as I started off by thinking about the best interests of others and then acted in a way that’s beneficial for others, I’d receive positive feedback and form a virtuous cycle. I have no idea about the results of the election. I’d probably be able to speak about it more accurately perhaps one year from now.
During my stint as the head of epidemic prevention, I felt it was in the most difficult times that I made the most and closest friends. Surely it was hard work. It was incredibly stressful. We encouraged and motivated each other. We were fellow warriors on the same boat, weren’t we? We were proud that we experienced so many things together. In fact, by the world’s standards, we did really well. People called us Epidemic Prevention May Day. Our ages and backgrounds were not that similar, but we worked hand in hand. After I left, I would often get together with my CECC colleagues to have a meal and chat. We often gave each other a knowing smile while talking about our time working together. I feel that’s a tremendous power in our hearts.
MY: From acting as commander for epidemic prevention to running for mayor, how do you cope with stress? What are the reasons that you’ve been able to persevere? What do you think of the polls and criticisms from this election cycle currently?
CHC: I didn’t mull over how long I could go. I just tried my best to put myself in a relatively good mood every day. When I really couldn’t come up with a plan or solution, I would go to bed first. After I got up, I probably would then have whatever was troubling me figured out. At that time, I thought if I hadn’t been able to hang in there, the morale of my team would also have been affected. If my team had been impacted, the society at large would’ve been affected in some way, too.
Staying calm is also important. We need to face work with a bit of flexibility, [or we’d not be able to address] sudden changes. Last but not least, empathy is also important.
During the election campaign, I certainly haven’t been able to ignore criticism completely. But for me, this may well be a news event that lasts for only one day. If I expended too much energy on that, it’d be a burden. As a leader, when your mood is not stable, the whole team would not be stable. This would have effects on your judgment. As a result, you’d better not be affected [by criticism] too much.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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