CSS: A Summing Up

By Anjum Altaf

A diagnosis of the alleged ailments of the Central Superior Services (CSS) requires an evaluation of three independent but interrelated aspects: the quality of the pool of candidates interested in the service; the test that identifies the qualifiers for the service; and the working conditions of the selectees once they join the service.

The average ability of the intake pool is obviously a function of the general quality of education in the country which is considered to be declining. However, given Pakistan’s large population, there is little doubt that more than a few thousand outstanding students graduate each year from the leading educational institutions. This number greatly exceeds the three hundred or so places to be filled in the CSS per annum.

The real issue is that these outstanding graduates are no longer attracted to the CSS. There used to be a time, till almost the end of the 1970s, when the CSS was the most prized career option in the country. This is no longer the case partly because the set of attractive alternatives has expanded greatly over the years. At LUMS I reviewed the career preferences of recent graduates; only two percent wished to join the public sector. The majority aspired to go abroad for education or to join MNCs, international agencies, and global NGOs. Thus the pool of candidates willing to join the CSS is a residual. This is by no means a universal phenomenon; in many countries the civil service continues to remain attractive to top-ranked graduates.

Now consider the second aspect, the selection test that determines who qualifies from among the given pool of applicants. There is a simple criterion by which to assess its effectiveness: Does it identify the most suitable candidates from this pool? The selection can be extremely rigorous and completely meritocratic but the outcome depends entirely on the attribute that is being sought in the ‘most suitable’ candidates.

A stark illustration can highlight the significance of this distinction: When ZA Bhutto was selecting a COAS, was he seeking one most qualified to lead the armed forces (as he should have) or one who would be most subservient to him (as he seemed to do)? It is unlikely the two criteria would have identified the same individual.

The question to ask is whether the CSS selection test places more weight on ideological conformity and pliant behavior than on critical thinking and intellectual independence. And, also, whether the association of competence with knowledge of the English language is excluding otherwise more suitable applicants. These questions can be answered easily by a transparent review of recent examination papers and a random sampling of answers submitted by those taking the test.

Once the most suitable candidates are selected from the available talent pool, their subsequent performance depends on a set of independent factors related to conditions of work. Are civil servants facilitated to perform their assigned responsibilities at their maximum potential? It is almost universally acknowledged that conditions of work have deteriorated over time with civil servants in Pakistan losing the autonomy and constitutional protections shielding them from political pressures. Performance has deteriorated because survival and promotion have become more dependent on pleasing political bosses than on proficiency in the real task of delivering services to citizens.

One can also see how the three aspects discussed above are inter-related. The degrading conditions of employment act to turn away from the civil service many future applicants with a sense of integrity and self-respect. They gravitate to other careers where merit and hard work are better recognized and rewarded.

The establishment, in turn, uses the selection mechanism to attempt to screen out candidates likely to challenge the status quo and ask difficult questions about the prevailing norms of governance. Consciously or unconsciously, adherence to political or ideological positions begins to influence the selection process more than raw talent – loyalty trumps merit. This selection bias, in turn, carries implications for the ability with which the selected civil servants can fulfill the tasks assigned to them.

This review suggests the elements of a comprehensive reform package that could address the problems of performance attributed to the civil service in Pakistan. First, the quality of general education has to be improved so that the pool of applicants to the civil service is better qualified. Second, the prestige of the service has to be restored so that it becomes an attractive career choice for the best graduates. Third, the selection process has to ensure that the most qualified applicants are picked from the available pool of applicants. And fourth, the conditions of service have to be such that civil servants can discharge their responsibilities honestly and efficiently without political interference or intimidation.

These steps are by no means impossible to implement. They imply a reversal of the weaknesses that have undermined the reputation of a service that used to be held in much higher regard in the past.    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It sums up the arguments presented in three earlier installments: CSS: Danger Alert, CSS: Why English?, and CSS: Probing the Examination.

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