CSS decline

Updated 21 May 2017


THE fact that out of 9,643 applicants only 202 passed the Central Superior Services exam this year has led to headlines like ‘Decline of CSS’. While the reasons for this decline are many, this year’s result does not stem from them. The actual reason is the change in the system of examination introduced by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC).

In 2016, the FPSC, on the basis of a number of studies, changed the rules of the exam. It had been following trends where engineers would opt for high-scoring maths and score solid marks, which was not possible for even brilliant students of other, less-scoring subjects. This specialised subject approach was adopted in other areas also, putting the majority of students at an unfair disadvantage.

Since the concept of the CSS exam is based on looking for generalists with a proven level of intellect, the FPSC has come up with six different groups of subjects, including economics and accounting, pure sciences/maths, business/public administration, history, environment/earth sciences and law. It has made it obligatory for applicants to choose practically one subject from each group to ensure a level playing field.

Bashing civil servants is a favourite pastime.

In the good old days of our vintage, there were no multiple choice questions and taking an exam was an art unto itself. Students of English literature and those who had better writing skills had a distinct advantage. Then some decades later, we saw a preponderance of engineers and doctors as entrants. So until the FPSC finds some other aberration, the new rules are meant to fix that flaw.

Any new system takes time to be mastered. Since failing even one subject eliminates a candidate’s chances altogether, the pass percentage has nosedived, as the majority have struggled with elective subjects they have little expertise in.

Some more context is required. Constitutionally, there are three pillars of the state — the executive, judiciary and parliament. Over the years, three more pillars have cropped up — the military, the media and the mullah. Each defends its turf jealously. Take the military and the judiciary. There is only internal accountability. The media and the public are generally careful when it comes to criticising them. Beyond a certain point, the institutions step in to defend their respective members.

Similarly, criticism of or allegations against a parliamentarian is refuted promptly through the media to which he/she has ready access. He/she may also use the floor of the house to use the choicest invective for his/her critic. And, you criticise the mullah at your own physical peril.

Meanwhile, criticise a media person and he/she will ensure that all your blunders, imaginary or real, are brought to everyone’s attention and that you are forced to go into full-time media management to save your honour. If that option is not available, his/her union, channel or colleagues come to the rescue.

It is only the bureaucrats who are not defended by any one, not even by their own colleagues. Going to the media is against the rules and ‘arranging’ a bureaucrat’s defence through the media is difficult as civil servants don’t have informal access. Officer associations are tame, due to years of servile training; they protest through the ‘proper channels’ only.

Bureaucracy-bashing continues to be the favourite pastime of the judiciary, the media, and the politicians. Bureaucrats are used as examples of unbridled power, inefficiency and corruption, traits which are not exclusive to them.

When earnest young men and women entering the CSS see posts being given on political recommendations rather than on merit, when they understand that loyalty to the politician in power earns a bureaucrat choice assignments, when the corrupt in their ranks prosper, all idealism goes out of the window.

Those who refrain from falling in line or get themselves posted to some affiliate organisation, away from the mainstream, or just learn to pass time, becoming negative and obstructionist in the process.

When the bureaucracy is not given due respect by the powers that be and the pillars of the state, the public follows suit and you have a system where everyone takes it for granted. Resultantly, it cannot enforce its writ.

Even young, idealistic CSS entrants get no support or guidance from their seniors, who are themselves insecure. The federal establishment secretary and the provincial chief secretaries, at one time the source of ultimate power for the civil servant, are unable to secure themselves and have become post offices.

Can you even imagine a Pakistani army chief waiting for hours outside the prime minister’s office to take orders or get approval of the postings of his corps commanders, or to protest against the posting of a brigadier behind his back? Well this is what happens all the time when it comes to bureaucrats including senior ones. And civil servants are still expected to be decisive and efficient, and to deliver.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2017