Posts Tagged ‘CSS’

CSS Questions: Ideology or Science

June 10, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In connection with the much discussed concerns with the performance of the civil service in Pakistan, I have suggested that in addition to obvious factors like the quality of education in the country and the terms and conditions of employment during service, it might be useful to look at the particulars of the selection test itself. The objective would be to assess how the test impacts the behavior of candidates and whether it encourages self-selection of particular types of candidates.

The argument can be motivated with one illustrative question from the compulsory Islamiat paper downloaded from the version of the 2015 CSS examination available on the website of the Federal Public Service Commission. The question is as follows:

“Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.”

Now consider the implications of the question. First, note the word ‘prove’ which is generally used in the context of propositions that are known to be factually true and whose truth is to be demonstrated by empirical verification or logical argumentation. The proposition that the earth is round or that the theorem of Pythagoras holds are familiar examples. Is there really any way to convincingly prove in this sense an article of faith asserting that a religious obligation can ensure economic stability of a society? Is there really any need to prove an article of faith?

Second, assume that nevertheless an attempt is made to prove the proposition. Does the question provide acceptable clarity on what is meant by ‘economic stability of a society’ the existence of which is to be proved? What are the indicators that characterize economic stability? What is to be considered the distinction between stability and instability?

Third, consider the question in a broader economic context. As an obligatory payment levied on wealth and earmarked for poverty alleviation, Zakat is only one instrument among many other economic instruments and policies. Is it realistic to imply that just one instrument can ensure economic stability in a society if many of the other policies are poorly conceived and implemented? Would it suffice if, say, the economy is undergoing hyperinflation?

Fourth, consider the empirical evidence. Zakat is not only widely practised in Pakistan but also compulsorily collected by the state. Many would claim it has not led to an acceptable level of economic stability, however defined, in the country. The only argument that can be advanced to defend the proposition is the counterfactual one, i.e., that if Zakat were to be implemented ‘effectively’ the objective would be achieved. This reverts to being an article of faith leaving no room to argue that a single instrument, no matter how effectively implemented, might not be sufficient to guarantee economic stability in a society.

Fifth, and most importantly, consider the dilemma of candidates faced with this question. Quite independent of their individual opinions, would anyone risk offering an answer that might be contrary to the belief of an unknown examiner? Would they jeopardise the chance of a prestigious career by expressing intelligent opinions no matter how well argued? Would there be some candidates who would balk at the need to argue contrary to their experiential understanding and what would be the price of their intellectual honesty?

What is the likely outcome of posing this type of question? Zakat is a staple topic that is repeated every few years. It has a safe and acceptable answer that is available for memorization. My guess is that the majority of the candidates would opt for a safety-first strategy and give the examiners what they presume the latter are looking for. As a result the answers would be fairly similar and standard reflecting no original thought. This contention could be easily verified by reviewing the answers to this question submitted by successful candidates.

It is possible to frame the same question in a much more neutral manner. One rephrasing could be as follows:

“Many countries rely on a wealth tax to smooth economic inequalities in society. Is there an analogous instrument in Islam? If so, describe briefly the principal characteristics of the instrument. Is the effective implementation of a wealth tax sufficient to alleviate absolute poverty in a society? If yes, describe briefly how that can be achieved in Pakistan. If not, what other measures might be needed to achieve the objective?”

Such a reformulation would allow students much more leeway to demonstrate their independent thinking and analytical abilities. The question would not be seeking a pre-determined correct answer but a broader knowledge of social issues, the mechanisms available to address them in a religious tradition, and the real-life conditions in which the mechanisms are likely to be sufficient and most effective. These qualities rather than the ability to reproduce unquestioned texts should be what is expected of the candidates inducted into the civil service.

Lest it be thought that I have chosen an unrepresentative question I am reproducing another from the same examination paper:

“Argue for supremacy of Wahi as the solution of human problems against other sources of knowledge.”

Readers will note that it is susceptible to the same limitations as the earlier question in that it leaves room for only one safe and acceptable answer. This is what is termed a loaded question and it is not considered good pedagogical practice to include such faith-based tenets in examinations.

Consider further how this question might be reconciled with the following question posed in the Islamic History and Culture paper:

“The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone (sic) of progress in Europe. Explain.”

Given that the earlier question calls for an argument for the supremacy of Wahi against other sources of knowledge, did Muslims establish Wahi as the foundation of knowledge in Spain? That is unlikely to have been the case since Europe did not rely on it as a milestone in its progress. So the real question might turn out to be about the evolution of knowledge and the reasons for it in Muslim Spain. Such contradictions are bound to emerge if faith and reason are mixed up in this unthinking manner.

The usual response to such arguments is to deflect attention from their logic and suppress discussion by questioning the nationalism or religious faith of the writer. Such a tendency which has grown manifold in Pakistan is itself an outcome of the kinds of tests of faith to which all students are subjected throughout their education. Many people, including examiners, now believe there is only one correct answer to every question and it is the answer to which they subscribe. Questioning as a quality of mind is to be weeded out rather than encouraged. It is an attitude for which society has to pay a heavy price of which one is the burden of a pliant civil service.

This opinion was published in Express Tribune on June 9, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. It is a follow-up to an earlier article, CSS: Probing the Examination.

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CSS: A Summing Up

June 2, 2017

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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