Wednesday November 29, 2023

The myth of civil service

June 20, 2020

The writer is a freelance contributor.

These days many people seem to be hurling unnecessary taunts at government servants, asking them to be thankful that they are still getting paid while more competent and better educated people have been rendered jobless by the private sector due to the severe financial crunch. This faulty line of argument finally needs a proper response.

Since I joined government service through the CSS in 1994, I will try to respond by explaining a bit about the recruitment process in particular. Usually in order to qualify for the CSS (which still includes a bunch of most sought after jobs in the federal government due to a so-called myth of nuisance and social status attached to them) one has to invariably burn the midnight oil for an average of at least 12 months. This period may even be more in many cases but we can safely assume that a minimum preparation of 12 months is undertaken by most aspirants.

After this a cumbersome process of selection/recruitment starts which takes at least another full year and which covers a written test, its result announcement, psychological evaluations, medical evaluations and interviews. Most of the unsuccessful aspirants who either fail in the written part or don’t get any allocation in the end repeat this ordeal until their three chances are exhausted. The 1.5-2 percent super lucky brainy people who finally qualify are required to undergo a grilling training for a further two years. Once posted in the field, every officer still has to complete a certain time of on-the-job training as well. So by and large, this whole process, starting from preparations up to getting an independent posting, can stretch up to 4.5 years.

It has also been proven from the records of recruiting bodies that 90 percent of the aspirants hold a distinction in their educational career. Hardworking medical doctors and engineers constitute the highest number of selected candidates, followed by graduates of other social sciences. So it's odd when you hear certain people say that the stuff recruited these days is not up to the mark when surprisingly every new batch of civil servants invariably comprises the top performers of their respective educational institutions.

Furthermore, once their training is completed, a CSS Officer is posted in BS-17 either in the field or in the headquarters. The average starting salary of a CSS officer currently is around Rs30,000 these days. This is the most vital figure which matters in the whole equation. Hardly five percent of those recruited in the initial BS-17 are supplemented with an official vehicle or an official residence and this privilege too is restricted to a few better placed groups through their field postings.

The rest of the bigger chunk of these freshly recruited so-called officers is posted in major cities where they have to find their own housing and conveyance. It is an extremely delicate walk on a very thin and tight rope and if an officer wants to stay honest then joining the civil service is one of the worst decisions someone can make these days. All of this hard work to stay as a top performer all their life with lofty and idealistic dreams eventually ends up in great disillusionment.

In this year’s federal budget, there has been no increase in the salaries of government employees and even last year there was a mere five percent increase. The average inflation this year was around 11 percent and a simple calculation tells us that in the last two years there was a total erosion of 23 percent in real incomes on this account, let alone the impact of raised income tax rates and a phenomenal increase in the PKR-USD exchange rate (which has its own devastating economic impact on a lot of other things).

So government servants recruited as gazetted officers in Grade 17 today are worse off as the real value of their take-home salary before any mandatory deductions stands at around Rs23000 instead of Rs30000. In comparison, a full-time domestic servant in people's houses these days is getting on average a salary of Rs20,000 with additional three times free meals and free accommodation. So in a way a freshly recruited CSS officer is only getting around Rs3000 more than a full-time domestic servant. Now extrapolate the same situation to the senior officers, who have grown-up children and bigger economic responsibilities, and imagine how difficult it is for them to keep-up their appearances in society while staying honest.

Critics say that if you are so unhappy with the government job then why did you join it in the first place and that you must have known about the pay packages beforehand? They also (mostly our friends from the private sector) hold this firm belief that government servants are lazy, incompetent and corrupt. Though joining the civil service or any other government job is a conscious decision, the argument that people working in the private sector are more competent and productive seems really odd.

People in government offices regularly work late hours without any extra compensation. Yes, some of the aspirants may be aware of the pay packages, but most of the younger lot is so enamoured by the so-called social status attached to the CSS that they never factor in the economic part of these jobs. So it usually dawns upon them once they are thrust into the grinding mill of practical life. It is at this initial stage that around 20-25 percent officers decide to either switch or retake the CSS examination for greener pastures in terms of facilities or economic benefits. Still a sizable number are stuck in a catch-22 situation and they continue with hope of an improvement in the pay structure or due to their own lofty ideals of serving their country with honesty.

Most of the government officers recruited through the Public Service Commission come from middle-class families and leaving such jobs due to less pay or other disillusionments become a huge decision for them and their families and they couldn’t dare to take such risk due to their own social pressures. Until a time comes in their professional life when it becomes next to impossible for them to switch due to factors such as their age or some of them losing their initiative and eventually falling into the quagmire of corruption. Therefore, a dedicated government servant who really wants to remain honest will now have to plug a lot of domestic financial leaks to bear this current jolt of no increase in their salary. Since their comparative salaries with the private sector are way low, an increase equal to at least the inflation rate was needed to offset its devastating economic impact.

Notwithstanding a few bad eggs, a considerable majority of government officers are competent, well educated, adequately trained, honest and true to their cause of working for the public sector. That is why many such retired senior government officers still get immediate reemployment in private sector organizations on key positions. It is the duty of the government to help them by ensuring at least uniformity in the compensation packages of all public servants working in similar grades. This policy of some officers being more equal than others is causing a lot of heartburn.

Lastly, if the current crisis has exposed the fragility of job security in the private sector, then can say that nobody stopped those working for the private sector to join the government sector. However, for a government officer this concept of job security has become very elusive. So it’s not a bed of roses either. In the end, it can now be safely assumed that joining the CSS or government service has almost lost its charm for the brighter lot as its economic viability has fallen down considerably.