Civil service in decline

August 26, 2012


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.