Thursday December 07, 2023

The CSS debate

June 11, 2017

The civil service – especially the quality of civil servants – comes under discussion in the media every year after the declaration of the Central Superior Services (CSS) result by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC).

The discussion is sparked by the dismal rate at which students are able to clear the CSS examination. And the discussion compels media pundits to often link the low number of successful candidates to the sorry state of educational affairs in the country. Speakers on talk shows lament the neglect of education, a large number  of op-ed pieces appear and the subject eventually goes off radar. The same trend has been on display over the last couple of weeks.

Framing an issue with the right approach is the key to finding a solution. It helps with the correct diagnosis of the causes of affliction and paves the way for the identification of the possibilities to fix them.

The low percentage of CSS qualifiers is not the real problem. In all competitive examinations conducted at national or international level, only a small percentage of candidates are able to pass all stages. In France, less than a hundred people are able to get selected every year for civil service jobs.

The quality of civil servants selected demands a careful and thorough analysis. Indubitably, the productivity of civil servants has considerably gone down over the last four or more decades. The state has not been able to keep pace with the modernisation of structures and processes required for efficient growth in the economy. And any future roadmap for development is doomed without any reforms in the bureaucracy.

Our political elite are disinclined to consider a serious reform process. They prefer to tweak with the procedures and introduce small changes, which have been ineffective to address the deeper malaise.

The civil service examinations are conducted across the world to select people to run the administration. Examinations provide a useful means to filter the candidates who do not possess basic analytical abilities. The content of examination determines its relevance to the selection of the most suitable candidates for the jobs. To select the brightest candidates, it must be a competitive, rigorous and meritocratic process. Unfortunately, the present CSS examination structure does not measure up to those standards. The questions on the exam do not require imaginative solutions. Instead, they are designed to encourage candidates to memorise information without developing a detailed understanding of the subject. The predictability of the exam questions has facilitated the proliferation of coaching centres in major urban centres. Unfortunately, these coaching centres do not pay any attention to developing cognitive analytical skills and merely prepare students to prepare a particular set of questions to pass an exam.

The civil service in France is famous for selecting the cream of the nation to lead the administration, business and politics. Their selection process is extremely rigorous and, by all means, separates the best and the brightest from the rest. The candidates take five written exams – Public Law, Finance, European Law, Social Policy and  Mathematics – followed by four oral exams – Public Finance, International Relations, European Politics and General Knowledge. This is followed by a 45-minute oral exam. Candidates who pass these three stages are put through a sports fitness test. These selected candidates have guaranteed jobs in the civil service and are imparted training for two years at the École nationale d’administration (ENA) – the most prestigious institutes launched by Charles de Gaulle in 1945.

The most recent efforts made to reform the CSS exam include various changes. First, the age limit has been increased by two years for all categories. Second, the minimum qualification to sit the exam has been enhanced to 16 years of education. Third, a couple of new subjects – such as Urban Planning and Criminology – have been introduced. Fourth, the weightage of certain subjects has been increased while for the others it has been decreased.

A single thread runs through these changes: the lack of imagination. Any reform process must define the need to undertake the reform for the objectives to be achieved.

Commentators often make the mistake of ascribing the poor quality of the civil servants to the deteriorating standards of education. They overlook the fact that the civil service is unable to attract the best talent available in Pakistan. This is due to the examination structure and the lack of incentives. And the decision-makers have very conveniently put this factor aside. They need to learn from other countries that have an efficient bureaucracy.

In Singapore, the first – and most important – step undertaken to stop the brain drain into private sector is to offer competitive, market-based salaries to civil servants. The brightest candidates are chosen from schools and awarded government scholarships to study at prestigious institutions in Singapore. They are also provided scholarships to study abroad at world-class universities. They are bound to return back to the country and join the civil service. Furthermore, they are allowed to continue working at one ministry for a sufficiently long period of time to build their expertise.

Our CSS exam process is also not meritocratic because of the existence of quotas that offered on a geographical basis and for the armed forces. The reservation of posts is primarily aimed to give the disadvantaged sections of society a deserving leg-up for a temporary period of time. The quota for the armed forces cannot be justified as a form of affirmative action.  Likewise the geographical quota is not supposed to continue forever.

However, the quota for disadvantaged regions – which was due to end in 1993 – has continually been extended over time. Moreover, the quota is misused by people who obtain domiciles of smaller provinces but generally have access to education and other services which are at par with any other candidate throughout their life. These distortions allow less competent professionals to enter the service and thereby impact the efficiency of the civil service.

The writer is a Rhodes scholar. He currently works in the Civil Service of Pakistan.