Not long ago, a civil servant was considered in “possession of good fortune” – much like Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice – and many parents were “in want” of such a match.
These were the glorious days of the Central Superior Services (CSS) when it was considered a jewel in the crown. The ‘good fortune’ was a package of power and authority along with numerous perks and privileges – like a heap of pearls – which made the CSS option extremely attractive. As a result, many professionals – doctors, engineers, lawyers and business-degree holders – used to try their luck in the CSS exams.
The inner motive was well-disguised under the noble aspiration to serve the public with the “milk of human kindness”. No matter what the aim and ambition, the civil servant was valued and worshipped like a deity.
Despite this attractive scenario, it is being currently observed that the number of academically proficient students who perform well in the CSS exams have declined as compared to previous years. The recent low pass percentage in the exam indicates this trend.
This not only reflects a sudden change of heart but also highlights the growing distrust that the civil service is an attractive option. Power, authority, fringe benefits no longer attracts people. There is an obvious lack of interest to pass on the legacy of public service to the future generations. Various factors that have eroded the bureaucracy’s legitimate powers and diminished its attraction among people.
The working environment is an obvious reason of for the lack of interest. Trapped in a typical public sector job, one-time competitive CSS hawks gradually become tortoise-like. They slide into a shell on seeing danger and are threatened for the most part of his journey by the rod of his boss and the stick of the politician. Their salvation lies in sycophancy, subservience and succumbing to all kinds of pressure if they want to be successful in getting a prized posting in terms of power and money.
This environment can be demoralising for those who are not comfortable with such antics. Compare this to a private sector job, where a hare-like professional leaps and jumps, willing to box his rival, question his master and earn a fair appraisal for his work that is done on merit. Not many outstanding people can afford to lead a tortoise-like life for long without becoming frustrated.
Wealth has become the most important determinant of status and power in the changing socio-economic environment. The salary of a CSS officer is not market-oriented. It doesn’t justify his output of work and is insufficient to meet his household needs. The services at the top of merit – like the DMG, police, foreign service and customs – offer many additional benefits to bureaucrats in the form of official residence, cars, household staff that supplements the income. But services which are down in the line of merit and are devoid of many fringe benefits may not seem attractive.
In their desire to remain at par with other professional peers in terms of wealth and money, bureaucrats, by and large, indulge in illegal means of amassing money through rent-seeking, corruption and the misuse of public funds. These are institutionalised means of supplementing income from a meagre salary without remorse or guilt.
A few unfortunate ones who are caught face defamation and criminal proceedings. Their plight is highlighted in the media hysterically and serves as a grim reminder for the youth to opt for a job that is financially rewarding and allows them to legitimately earn money.
Furthermore, an incessant political pressure and the absence of a security of tenure have impaired the free exercise of bureaucratic power. A civil servant is less likely to be transferred on the basis of inefficiency or corruption than for failing to comply with his political masters who may spare the rod and spoil his career any time. Those who dare to defy may bear the onslaught in the form of a sudden transfer, which is construed as a penalty for not performing a favour for the mighty. This aspect is quite discouraging for morally upright civil servants.
Postings and transfers are doled out on the basis of favouritism and close connections. This generates a sense of disgruntlement among the serving bureaucrats and the aspiring youth as the CSS no longer remains merit-oriented and professional.
How will the youth be inspired to take the CSS exams when there is no guarantee that merit will prevail after they are selected and they will not be politically victimised? They are also not sure whether their hard work will be rewarded and their survival will be at risk. Since honesty has become a rare trademark and integrity almost redundant and there are so many external pressures to bear, the prospects of taking the CSS exam appear to be declining.
The observations made by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case about the dubious role of institutions reflect directly on their credibility of decision-making.
Though it is no longer a green pasture for the academically bright, the CSS is still one of the few avenues of social mobility in Pakistan that provides opportunities to all segments of society to compete on merit, climb the ladder of social hierarchy and reach highest point in the decision-making infrastructure through both effort and sifarish. This path is not hassle-free.
The writer holds an LLM degree in international economic law from the University of Warwick.