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Civil service in decline


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JUST a few decades ago, joining the Pakistan civil service was the dream of every top student graduating from an elite university.

Civil servants stood out for not just their overall outlook, but were also well-read and intellectual.

Today, however, few people with high academic achievements and potential are interested in pursuing this career.

While the overall decline in the quality of education is one of the reasons, the major reason has to do with the structure of civil service recruitment: the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination that is the entry point into the Civil Service of Pakistan, and its assessment techniques.

The foremost problem is the very structure of the exam. Candidates are required to appear for six compulsory subjects, each of 100 marks, and can choose from a list of optional subjects that range from carrying 100 to 200 marks to fulfil the remaining requirement of 600 marks. If you pass the exam you move on to the next step, which is the interview.

The problem is that the compulsory subjects — Essay, English, Everyday Science, Current Affairs, Pakistan Affairs and Islamiat — do not judge the candidates’ intellectual ability. They require rote learning from the prescribed state perspective.

The English section tests antonyms, synonyms and how fast one can read English passages in a given time to answer questions. Students are not trained for this in Pakistan’s educational curriculum. The Essay subject tests knowledge of Victorian-era English with a major focus on flowery language, and the usage of quotations and idioms. This again requires rote learning. If you fail this component, you fail the entire examination — which happens to more than half the candidates who appear every year.

Even bigger problems exist with Pakistan Affairs, Islamiat and Current Affairs, which together account for 50 per cent weightage of the compulsory subjects.

The questions asked are such that there is no single answer. Here are some examples: “Describe the dignity and superiority of Islam with proof as compared to other religions” (2000); “Write down a comprehensive essay on the judicio-political system of Islam” (2002); “What is the concept of ‘Khalafat’ in Islam?” (2001).

Islam in Pakistan is extremely diverse in ideology. What line are students to follow to get high marks?

Pakistan Affairs asks questions such as “Analyse the main causes of the debacle of East Pakistan. What are its consequences on the history of Pakistan?” (2000), and “As a result of British-Hindu conspiracy on the eve of Independence the state of Pakistan which ultimately emerged in August 1947 was not so strong as visualised by the Quaid-i-Azam…. Elucidate” (2003). What is a student to do if he believes with evidence that there was no British-Hindu conspiracy?

The questions are shockingly discriminatory and do not allow true intellect to pass the exams. Candidates are forced to memorise the state-sponsored narrative and are barred from thinking out of the box. The analysis required must be in line with the dominant narrative and ideology.

With the science subjects, it’s nearly impossible to score high in even subjects such as maths and economics because the examiners only care about the ‘right’ answer. The system followed throughout the world is that marks are allotted for the steps taken in working towards an answer, not just for the right answer.

As a result, rarely does anyone opt for science subjects; most choose high-scoring subjects such as journalism and political science. The subjects are not equally weighed in difficulty and in terms of assessment.

These discriminatory compulsory subjects could be replaced with simple verbal and analytical tests that gauge the students’ analytical abilities. There should be less stress on the English language since perfection in this regard is not necessarily a good indicator of intellect.

The grading of the CSS examinations is not centralised. Answer scripts are left to the mercy of individual examiners who are likely to grade according to personal biases and training.

Some graders might be more generous, others stingy with marks. There is no uniformity or standard grading key, leaving students hoping mainly for good luck. There is no way for a critical and analytical thinker to pass these exams.

A serious revision is needed in the pattern and structure of the CSS exam and its assessment. Instead of gauging students through their ability to memorise books and write lengthy essays, the exam should judge the analytical ability of the student.

A good example is the United Kingdom’s Graduate Fast Stream, the first step of civil service recruitment, which is a test of verbal reasoning and mental arithmetic, and continues with innovative techniques such as the ‘situation judgment test’ which examines candidates’ ability to handle different tasks, argue a case, deal with people and implement projects.

While the test is highly rigorous, the focus is on candidates’ core qualities of analysis, communication, execution and the ability to deliver.

The bureaucracy underpins the success of a nation, and Pakistan desperately needs to restructure and refine its bureaucracy by attracting leading intellectuals.

A good starting point would be a CSS examination that is focused on assessing core human abilities rather than in-depth knowledge to distinguish between intellectuals and rote learners, and brings the best minds into the civil service. Strengthening the bureaucracy is key to checking the corruption of politicians, and reducing the ability of the Pakistan Army to interfere in domestic policymaking.

A weak democracy has historically worked in the favour of both the army and politicians, and hence we don’t, perhaps, see the will to reform the civil service recruitment structure or assess whether the CSS exam is actually bringing in the right people to do the job.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C.

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (26) Closed

Gerry D'Cunha Aug 27, 2012 11:51am
When there is so much discriminations among different castes in Pakistan i.e between Sindhi;Punjabi;Baluchi;Saraki;Mahajir etc in getting civil service jobs, where does the poor minorities stand to compete. Poor state of Pakistan civil service is seen widely.
Xeric Aug 27, 2012 02:51pm
The writer forgets the ground realities and as if he is in the Republic of Plato. We should come out of utopia. It is the essence of Competitive Exams to filter the candidates because approximately 10,000 candidates or more apply for the CSS Exam in which around 8,000 appear and below 1,000 are declared successful in the written Exam. More are filtered in the procedure of interview and finally 300 or 400 are selected to serve the country. The process is not completed yet, here it comes a lengthy process of Common Training Program (CTP) and Special Training Program (STP) in which the selected best are groomed to serve the country after completion of training and probationary period comprised of not less than 3 years. There are the best Civil Servants available in Pakistan but the system makes the things worse. They are taught to disobey political masters in illegal matters and they are also taught in schools and colleges to abstain from corruption and spend an orderly life. We need to change our attitude and educational system then it follows to bring reforms in professional fields. It is easy to write in a cool and calm room and in an ideal atmosphere about Civil Service but its really tough to survive in such a tough scenario when on the one hand you have to please the political masters and on the other hand with limited resources fight against terrorism, provide all sorts of civic facilities, bring peace and tranquility, create more opportunities for jobs, impose fine on hoarders and those causing for inflation, in a nutshell responsible for all miseries of the masses and at last not the least to bring up family with meager pay. At last I would say, I am corrupt honestly.
Zaka Aug 27, 2012 02:38pm
Every recruiting system has its merits and demerits. We can and should improve the mechanism for the induction of civil servants through css on the basis of right man for the right job. One of the key reasons behind the poor performance of the civil servants is the fact that the most of them are picked up not on the basis of their apptitude or demeanour but rather on the sheer judgement or faulty assessment by the psychological tests and intviews. Those who should have been in the foreign office are rotting in income tax or customs or somewhere where they hardly fit in. Take the recent example of a police officer who shot dead someone just for no reason. Or cases where people are beaten up by superior officers.Police officers or civil servants are supposed have a balanced intelligent quocient which was entirely missing in this case. Civil servants who can easily flare up or snap under presurre are nothing but disaster for the society. It is the sheer faillure of the psychological board to detect the germs of distorted and imbalanced personality of cIvil servants at the time of their induction hence an indifferent ,ineffective and inefficent civil service. We can not afford the luxury of crazy and intolreant civil servants.
Shamyl Aug 27, 2012 02:41pm
CSS is alright, no change needed. .Tthe current system enables the students of government educational institutions, belonging to lower strata of society, to compete with those who go to private institutions and have access to better study material and resources. So please keep your modern ideas to your self because they only serve the interest to the privileged classes. Secondly, how do you define the true intellect ? I am a civil servant myself and recently graduated from civil service academy Lahore. I did MBA from SZABIST Karachi and was offered job in a multinational with salary package starting from Rs. 60000. Yet i decided to opt for CSS. In my batch we have officers coming from University of Massachusetts, University of Exeter, University of Sydney and many other high ranking universities of the world. And they were competing against the the students from Government institutions of Pakistan. Therefore, in my viewpoint, the present system is fine and today Federal Public Service Commission is perhaps one of the most transparent, corruption free and efficient intuition in Pakistan. Hence, lets not criticise for the sake of criticism.
abc Aug 27, 2012 11:33am
10 percent quota is there for minorities besides open merit for them.The chairman of commission belongs to a Hindu Community and he is an ex-acting chief justice(apex court) of Pakistan.Hope you got your answer
Hamza Aug 27, 2012 07:28am
I support your views.
iq Aug 27, 2012 04:45pm
ya it still a dream......
ramay Aug 27, 2012 04:11pm
At the end i said that it is all the matter of luck :-p
manish Aug 27, 2012 12:25pm
couldn't understand....when their share in population is 3%, why the quota is 10%.
baakhlaq Aug 27, 2012 06:19pm
Sorry to differ with the editor's policy,the whole article deserved some space in "The letters to the editor"column only and bye the way what special contribution has been made by the bureaucracy that was inducted through a different examination system.This is the age of specialization and now only the left overs go for civil service.
Arshad Aug 27, 2012 04:15pm
Can't agree more.
Omer Mahar Aug 29, 2012 11:57am
Can you please send me the link?
Gerry D'Cunha Aug 27, 2012 11:21am
How many minorities are given chance in the civil service jobs in Pakistan? Look at the figures of muslims in the top civil service jobs in UK and of course India.
Faisal Aug 27, 2012 07:50pm
when was the last time that you had a batch of 200 probationers in Civil Services Academy, 20 of which came from minority groups?
Deepen C Aug 27, 2012 10:40am
Questions related to the religion shown here confirm the mind set that is getting indoctrinated in the minds of all. This seems like one of the major fault lines in building a good peace loving nation. Any one getting it?
umer Aug 27, 2012 09:03am
Could not agree more.I appeared in the CSS 2000 exam. It was my first and last chance due to the recent changes to the upper age limit, introduced by the Musharraf government. I achieved 60% marks on average in all the optional and compulsory subjects except the in the paper of Pakistan Affairs, where I was awarded 9 marks out of a total of one hundred. That despite the fact in the optional subject of the Indo-Pakistan history, which deals with pretty much the same subject matter, I got 140/200 marks. The Pakistan Affairs paper had a question about the 'history of constitutional development in Pakistan' or something in the same vein. The second question was about the 'Kashmir Issue'. I dared challenge the official version of these topics and in return got my dream shattered.
Omer Mahar Aug 27, 2012 10:53am
I agree with the writer. A suggestion: To give the students a right direction as to what the assessor really wants, FPSC should release examiner reports (containing the first hand opinions of the examiners as to what they expect to be a good answer) annually and publish them on their website. A practice embraced by west for various academic degrees and competitive examinations. It will save the student from the hassle of joining academies (saving both time and money) and seeking guidance from senior civil servants. However in my opinion there's nothing that can really be done of the rote learning dilemma for Civil Services in Pakistan. At least not until the foundation is changed. Students here are accustomed to this practice since their primary education. It's always better to reform the structure from the base before expecting a meaningful change in the superstructure.
rabiyashraf Aug 28, 2012 11:15am
oh boy.
An Indian Aug 27, 2012 06:46am
The topics of essay question are simply appalling. "Superiority of Islam", "Hindu-British conspiracy" .. what biased topics.. It means all the non-Muslims of Pakistan are part of Hindu-British conspiracy. How will people of other religion feel comfortable and respectable in Pakistan when their civil servants are learning this. This over religiosity, bigotry and twisted history has left Pakistan where it is today. Hope sense prevails but it doesn't seem so!
ghassankhan Aug 27, 2012 08:50am
I've heard of a fellow named Bhagwan Das that chairs the CSS interview board and is notorious for his rhetorical questioning. We could use some new faces in the departments too.
Syed Adeel Ahmed Aug 27, 2012 06:39am
Excellent article. The people at the helm need to change the entire examination structure and do away with the flower, Victorian-era English. They should realise English is not what it used to be and that no one has the time--and ability--to write a 5,000-word essay. One can express one's thoughts in 1000 words easily.
abdul manan Aug 27, 2012 07:17am
its still a dream :P
farhat Aug 30, 2012 06:23am
i agree with the writer
Alina Aug 27, 2012 07:14am
I absolutely agree with the author because this is particularly true for students who've taken O level and A level examinations and are encouraged to "apply their minds" and discouraged to reproduce the rote-learned answers. In fact in all external examinations, applications of out of the box thinking, or extensive study, beyond the course of the subject, fetches distinctions and A*s. However, when one sits down to study for CSS, one's faced with multitudes of cheap "series" books, with even cheaper English, to be memorised and reproduced in the exams. Perhaps states don't require an intellectually strong bureaucracy and only require robots who are able to regurgitate state's propaganda.
Mohsin Ali Sep 01, 2012 09:23pm
Can not agree much with US based visiting scholar. Undoubtedly reforms are needed in the pattern of exam but before that reforms are needed in educations system as a whole. Any reform to benefit with A & O level student will make bureaucracy a bunch of smart boys having costly education and devoid of knowledge of public issues. Secondly, if the intellectual level has degraded CSS exam has nothing to do with it. To be very realistic if we pay Rs.8000 (in 2009) to a CSS officer, we will end up where we are today. Thirdly, it takes two long years from appearing in exam and joining the service. Although I agree that questions are many a times biased and there is no uniform yardstick to judge candidates intellect and abilities. Regards
Ahmed Aug 27, 2012 06:47pm
they do!