The Quaid-e-Azam once termed the civilian bureaucracy as the “backbone of the state”, while the French Historian Albert Guerard has said, “So long as the bureaucrat is at the desk, France survives.”

In this light, the failure of 97.14 per cent of aspirants in the Dwindling prestige of the CSS
(CSS) exams portrays a disappointing scenario. This failure needs to be assessed in the context of institutional strength. The startling rate of failure also questions the efficacy of the existing educational and evaluation systems. To be a member of the elite civil service is a dream for many. CSS exams are the only recruitment apparatus that still enjoy public trust and credibility.

According to recent results, 13,170 candidates appeared in the CSS exams; 439 passed the written exam and eventually 233 of these were notified to be eligible for allocation in the civil service. Of these 233 candidates, 144 were male and 89 were female. In 2013, 14,335 candidates applied to appear in the CSS exams, 10,006 appeared in them and 588 were declared successful in the written test.

According to the 2011 Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) annual report, a total of 11,888 candidates registered to appear in the CSS exams, 7,759 appeared in them and 642 passed the written test. They were interviewed for 271 vacancies. Of these, 205 vacancies were filled and the rest remained unfilled, which were primarily those of females and minorities from Balochistan, Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan. These vacancies remained unfilled due to the non-availability of qualified and suitable candidates. In the final selection, 77 per cent male and 23 per cent female candidates were allocated to various occupational groups.

Poor communication, weak analytical skills, inadequate knowledge of Pakistan and its civic issues, and poor general knowledge are some of the reasons behind the high percentage of failure. To attract promising talent, in June 2013, the FPSC announced the introduction of a screening process but this idea was postponed to be implemented in 2015. The screening test will be based upon multiple choice questions worth 200 marks and will aim at filtering potential candidates in a bid to reduce the burden on the FPSC.

In India until 2010, the written exam was based on the recommendations of the Kothari Commission (1979). From 2011 onwards, a preliminary examination was also added to the process. The Indian screening test intends to focus on analytical abilities and understanding rather than on the traditional ability to memorise. Candidates who fail the screening test are not eligible to appear in the subsequent written exam. The Indian civil service exams are based on three stages — preliminary, main and personality test, while the Pakistani exams consist of two stages i.e., the written test and the interview.

In our education system, career counselling is a key missing link. The FPSC has attempted to fill this gap by educating potential aspirants regarding the kind of career prospects they may have if they opt for working in the civil service. In this regard, the FPSC approached some educational institutions to help reach potential candidates. What is needed is the conduct of periodic career counselling sessions in all provincial capitals that can encourage the best talent to think about joining the civil services.

The result of the last few years demonstrates a high percentage of failure in English and Islamiyat. Regarding proficiency in English, the FPSC report has observed that “most candidates lacked in presenting the relevant material, and even the basics of essay writing”. Only two per cent of successful candidates obtained more than 60 per cent marks in the English essay part of the exam in the last few years and there were very few who obtained more than 60 per cent marks in Pakistan Affairs, while a large number failed this subject. Regarding failures in Islamiyat, the FPSC report recorded that “some answer scripts were of such a low standard that the candidates did not deserve to be CSS examination candidates”. The majority of candidates seem to be dependent on sub-standard guides.

Like other sections of society, majority of students believe in shortcuts. Instead of reading and producing creative output, they prefer reproduction. This hampers analytical ability. The best talent in the country is being attracted to other fields. Owing to unattractive conditions, candidates with academic excellence are more interested in the private sector or in going abroad than in the civil service. Consequently, brain drain is badly affecting the quality of the intake.

In the past, foreign qualified candidates readily appeared in CSS exams. In fact, London used to be one of the examination centres. The closure of London as an examination centre speaks of the fact that Pakistani talent residing in Europe is not enthusiastic in joining the civil service.

There is an impression that the quota system also affected the quality of the intake. According to this school of thought, merit should be the only criteria. Further, the appearance of professionals in CSS exams, like doctors and engineers, indicates that the majority only wants power. These professionals can probably serve better in their respective fields but still opt for the civil service. To motivate the best talent, the FPSC needs to seek cooperation of universities.

There are many countries which look at their civil service with pride. But in the Third World, it is yet to prove itself as an agent of effective change. Since the 1980s, Singapore has made well thought-out efforts to attract the best talent in its civil service. Resultantly, its bureaucracy is known as one of the most efficient and honest in the world. Its bureaucratic structure facilitated the country’s economic development. The best talent is encouraged to join the civil service. Behind Singapore’s success is the government’s business-like approach to the bureaucracy. It persistently analyses the service delivery needs of society and initiates reforms on a continuous basis instead of periodically. The Singapore Public Service Commission (SPSC) claims to be an independent body that strives to identify and train promising talent. It also awards scholarships to bright students who have the intention to serve in the public service after completion of their studies. Competitive salaries are given to attract the best talent. Merit-based personnel assessment makes the process more transparent. Promotions and incentives are primarily performance-based. When the economy does well, civil servants are also rewarded with bonuses. To discourage corrupt practices, the government has empowered the independent Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau to prosecute corrupt officials without fear and favour.

The failure to reform the Pakistani civil service will further erode the capacity of service delivery. Political will and ownership can instill confidence in civil service. A professional civil service can convert ideals into reality. Career counselling, hunting talent, training and capacity-building all need to be synchronised efforts on part of the FPSC, academia and the political leadership.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2015.

By Mohammad Ali Babakhel

The writer is a senior police officer posted to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa