CSS: Danger Alert

By Anjum Altaf

The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) – in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed – has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good.

Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case.

Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed. This observation so intrigued me that over the past two years I have investigated the experience of students who appeared in the examination.

Here is an example to set one thinking: A student went into the CSS examination with a 94th percentile ranking in the SAT writing test, an A+ in a BA writing and communication course, a 85th percentile ranking in the GRE essay test, and a 100 percentile ranking in the TOEFL. In the CSS English essay he was awarded 12 marks out of 100 and failed. In contrast, a number of students who found writing a coherent paragraph difficult, cleared the essay.

Something was clearly amiss and my investigations led to the following hypothesis: An examination can be strictly meritocratic and extremely rigorous and yet be entirely misleading at the same time.

To pass judgement on an examination one has to know what it is testing for. I can assert with some confidence that the CSS examination is not testing for intelligence or creativity or command over language. Rather, I sense it is testing for obedience to a metanarrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo.

I found that a four-year undergraduate education, even from the best institutions in the country, is not enough to sit the CSS examination successfully. Close to another year of preparation in a coaching centre is needed where students are drilled in what is considered acceptable in answers to typical questions, what authorities are to be cited prominently or avoided at all costs, and even what part of the text is to be highlighted.

Then there are the questions themselves about which candidates are instructed not to express their own opinions. Rather, they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the acceptable answers and reproduce them without error in the required format. Many questions are formulated in ways that leave room for only one acceptable and safe answer.

Smart students entered the year of coaching aware of what it entailed but with the confidence that they could play along to pass the examination and then revert to what they really believed in. While some did survive, many emerged with their personalities altered. This was indoctrination at its most effective. I could not help thinking of the CSS academies as upscale equivalents of the much criticised madrassas. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.

To summarize: For some years now the examination is selecting those who will “do or die” not those who would “reason why” and I suspect this is being done consciously. I hope I am wrong but to prove that one would need to open up the system for review. I can offer the following suggestion. First, all those who passed the most recent written examination should be administered a standard international test,  ideally at the GRE level since the applicants have completed their undergraduate education. Given that there are only 200 applicants this would be quite affordable and would provide an immediate assessment against a global benchmark of the ability of individuals being inducted into the civil service.

Second,  the CSS examination papers and a random sample of answer books of successful candidates should be given to an international panel representing the selection boards of a number of countries, like the UK, France, and Singapore, with highly regarded civil services. The panel would be charged with identifying weaknesses in the CSS selection system and with recommending appropriate changes.

The intellectual calibre of the civil service is a key attribute in its ability to implement the programs on which the future of the country depends. It is dangerous to start off forcing applicants to dissemble to enter the service and necessary to ensure that their selection screens for the skills and talents needed to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on December 20, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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15 Responses to “CSS: Danger Alert”

  1. sanpatel90 Says:

    I like to know about your views on Indian Civil Service exam where out of 3-4 lakh, 1000 candidates are selected.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sanpatel: I know virtually nothing about the current version of the ICS exam. It would help a lot if someone can provide details.

      There is a difference between how many pass the exam and how many are selected for the service. It became a much talked about issue in Pakistan this year because out of the 10,000 who sat in the exam only 200 passed. I understand there were about 300 positions available.

      It is quite possible that out of the 3-4 lakh who sat the ICS exam many more than 1,000 passed but the number selected was limited to 1,000. It is not possible to be specific without more information.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    There was an amazing comment on the Dawn website where this op-ed first appeared:


    I agree with most of what the writer has said in the article. Would like to substantiate his argument with a personal example: I attempted the exam in 2013 and failed English essay, securing only 15 mark. Now, I don’t mean to say that I was a super brilliant student. And I wasn’t shocked at my failure either. What shocked me was the margin of failure i.e I secured only 15 marks in English essay. I am sharing some facts to explain why my friends and I were shocked: I was a gold medalist at GC and went on to win Rhodes scholarship to study at the university of Oxford. I completed two Masters degrees from Oxford University. I don’t intend to claim that I have great command over English language. It would still have made send had I secured marks in the 30s or 20s. However, the fact that I secured only 15 makes came as a shock to me and my friends. To this date, I can’t make sense of it.

  3. Vikram Says:

    Are there some sample question papers one can look at to see the role of ideology in selection ?

    And in response to sanpatel’s question above, these could be compared to the ICS exam papers to see the difference:


  4. Anjum Altaf Says:

    An Urdu translation of the article can be accessed here:


  5. Abquddos Says:

    You are appealing nonsense in this piece of article. Your arguments and cross comparison of those performed well in GRE and SAT tests but met fiasco in CSS, do not stand to logic. Examiner in CSS neither knows the identity of the candidate nor he is versed with aspirant’s feathers on his crown. He judges only the material being furnished by the candidate. So, high performer of GRE, whereby knowledge related to particular subjects is not required and only common sense is scrutinized, may badly perform in CSS. Because, CSS examines both intelligence and knowledge which is prerequisite to perform one’s duties as civil servant by comprehending the surrounding.

    Appallingly, you have not raised the question of bureaucratic low performance because of political meddling with the work of civil servants and because of clientele politics which is indicated by Maleeha lodhi.

    Do not present your opinion subjectively based upon your own hatreds and jealousy toward the system rather bring some level of objectivity in your opinion.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Abquddos: Thank you for your comment. Please consider the following points:

      1. Neither in the CSS nor in the GRE or SAT do examiners know the identity of candidates. Therefore, this objection is not relevant.
      2. Like the CSS, the GRE or SAT also aim to examine both intelligence and knowledge.
      3. There is something called correlation. On average those scoring high in English in the GRE or SAT could be expected to score high in the English essay of the CSS. This might not hold in the case of every candidate but on average it will unless the two exams are testing for different attributes.
      4. This article was not meant to examine the performance of civil servants. It was focused exclusively on an inquiry into the selection test. The selection comes first and the selection test can be good or bad. The fact that there is political meddling during service should have no bearing on the design of the selection test.
      5. We differ in our assessment of the selection test. I believe it has some flaws; you feel it is fine. It is alright to have differences of opinion. Why do you believe that someone who disagrees with you does so only because of hatred or jealousy towards the system? Is it possible that your opinion can be mistaken?

      • Ab Says:

        I respect your opinion. But if you have gone through this process, you would better be cognizant with css journey. And kindly, check the examination pattern of GRE general, it does not evaluate the knowledge of a particular subject unlike CSS.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Abquddos: We are concerned with the English language. The English component of the GRE or SAT should be equivalent to the CSS English papers. There is no need to test knowledge of any subject in the CSS English paper. There are other papers to do that. The English paper should test only expression, comprehension, and grammar. The fact that it is being used to test subject knowledge is, in my opinion, a mistake.

          Also, both GRE and SAT have subject tests as well in addition to the general versions. Even the general tests are used to assess aptitude, conceptual ability, and potential for abstract thinking. I am just curious to know how candidates passing the CSS examination would score on the general GRE or SAT or an equivalent level international test. Do you think they would score very high?

          If someone were to do a deeper study, they could match performance of CSS subject tests with GRE or SAT subject tests.

  6. suhrab Says:

    There is one more flaw in the selection of candidates, that is the candidates are not placed on the basis of their academic background. one of my friends was selected in CSS and he was an engineer by profession led to foreign office.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Suhrab: It would be useful to treat selection and assignment as separate issues. Applicants are selected based on a common test. Here we can ask whether the test is a good one or not.

      Once selected, the selectees are assigned to various services. Here one could discuss what might be the best mechanism to decide the assignments.

  7. Shiraz Hassan Says:

    Sir you said CSS is “testing for obedience to a meta narrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo”, but this is not the case in every country? Can a European citizen write against holocaust? In fact there are countries in which people put to imprisonment if they question the official narrative of holocaust, please find below the link: http://investmentwatchblog.com/list-of-countries-that-put-people-in-jail-for-questioning-the-official-narrative-of-the-holocaust/

    Hence, I think in every country one have to write pro-state ideology to be successful in these exams which definitely discourages the critical thinking and questioning the status quo.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Shiraz: This point has to be made with some care. It is true that there is a prohibition in some countries that you mention but it pertains to denying the holocaust. That the holocaust happened is a fact and it is not permitted to deny that fact in some countries. But there is no prohibition on discussing the holocaust. Thus, the following kinds of questions are permitted:

      1. Do you think there should be a censure on denying the holocaust?
      2. Discuss what social factors led to the holocaust in Germany?

      There is in fact a great deal of self-reflection in Germany about the responsibility for the Holocaust.

      Now consider whether the following question could be posed in the CSS examination or any examination for that matter:

      Discuss the social factors that led to West Pakistan’s action in East Pakistan in 1971?

      Is there any self-reflection in Pakistan over the responsibility for the events in Bangladesh? What do the textbooks have to say?

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