The Failure of CSS Exam

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The Failure of CSS Exam

The final results of the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination have stirred a debate on why the once highly competitive race for filling vacancies for entry into the federal bureaucracy is running out of steam. Much of the debate has centred on the supply side, that is, the falling education standards in the country as well as the medium of the examination – English. The dismal CSS results, which for sure is not a one-off phenomenon, need to be seen from the demand side perspective as reflective of the larger cultural, economic and political changes that the country is in the throes of.

Like any other contest, the competitiveness of the CSS examination is chiefly contingent upon the value of the prize in the eye of the contestants – both actual and potential. In case the pay-off is deemed to be high, the competition will be fierce, attracting the best of the eligible candidates. By contrast, if the pay-off is regarded as not worth serious effort, the quality of the competition will go down. Besides, the pay-off is considered in a relative sense. While setting a high or low value on a prize, the contestants also take into account other similar prizes at which they can have a go.

The prize, when it comes to the CSS exam, is recruitment as a civil servant. In a larger sense, however, the prize is a rewarding life-long career. It follows, therefore, that the competitiveness of the CSS exam depends, more than any other factor, on the prestige that the institution of civil service commands relative to other career choices. That prestige, in turn, is a function of a set of political, economic and cultural factors.

Before taking stock of these factors, a few sentences about the working of the civil service seem in order. Max Weber famously characterised the civil service or the bureaucracy as the ‘legal-rational authority’. The word ‘legal’ signifies that a civil servant’s discretion in the matter on hand is constrained by the relevant laws, rules and precedents. Rather than being arbitrary, the decision taken or the input provided for decision-making by a civil servant must be legally correct.

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The Failure of CSS Exam

The word ‘rational’ implies that the ‘case’ is examined thoroughly and dispassionately and that the recommendation or decision is in keeping with the best available evidence. Prejudices as well as biases, fears and favours should not bear upon the disposal of cases.

The strengths and weaknesses of the civil service lies in being legal and rational. While these characteristics enable civil servants to discharge their functions in a professional and merit-oriented manner, too strong a commitment to rules, decorum and precedents breeds excessive formalism and a deep concern for observing the hierarchy. This prevents them from thinking out-of-the-box and so they adapt themselves to the emerging norms of organisational behaviour. In most of the government offices in Pakistan, for example, the manual file system and the tall organisational structure are still in vogue, which delays decision-making in an era in which time is of essence.

Over the years, the prestige of the civil service in Pakistan has gone downhill. An institution’s relative prestige depends on three indicators: the authority it wields, the perks and privileges its members enjoy and its perceived contribution to the social good. In the case of the civil service, all three indicators have declined.

The role of the state has shrunk under the influence of neo-liberalism – the most powerful contemporary socio-economic doctrine. In the neo-liberal worldview, the state is a necessary evil; therefore, its functions are kept at a minimum – ideally confined to maintaining law and order, enforcing contracts and collecting revenue. Instead, the private sector (businesses) and the civil society assume a more important role.

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In Pakistan as well several activities that were once regarded as among the core functions of the state – education, health, transport etc – have been transferred to businesses or the civil society. The government still runs schools and hospitals but the quality and predictability of their services comes under question from time to time. The same goes for the state-owned Pakistan Railways and the national air carrier. The lack of quality services provided by public-sector enterprises together with their bad financial health strengthens the case for privatisation, which is seen as undermining the bureaucratic authority.

As part of the opening up of the economy under multilateral commitments, customs tariffs have been scaled down, import licensing done away with and greater transparency in the economic management introduced. The government is increasingly being seen as more of a facilitator than a controller or organiser of the economic activity. Such developments have curtailed the bureaucracy’s legitimate powers as well as the rent-seeking that was derived from it.

A couple of other related developments have also dented the bureaucracy’s relative prestige. One, the public sector no longer enjoys monopoly over job creation. Over the past two decades, not only has the private sector expanded substantially but the job base has also widened considerably. As a result, young people today have a greater variety of jobs to choose from compared to their predecessors.

Two, wealth has become the capital determinant of status and the principal instrument of power. Although in the past as well civil servants earned less than other professionals, their position was regarded as more prestigious in view of the authority they wielded.

To top it all, the civil service has been heavily politicised and demoralised. Owing to the growing culture of political patronage and favouritism, the distinction between demonstrating accountability towards a person and an institution and displaying loyalty towards public interest and a political party has been eroded over the years. Against their call of duty, civil servants are expected by their political masters to remain loyal to a political party rather than to public interest. They are expected to remain obedient to a person instead of the law. From a public service institution, the bureaucracy has been reduced to an agency of political patronage.

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In the absence of any definite rule in respect of their term of office, civil servants find themselves in an insecure position. This sense of insecurity is one of the reasons – and, in many cases, the major one – that makes them comply with the wishes, fair or foul, of influential quarters.

Politicisation has also impaired the bureaucracy’s professionalism.

The politician-bureaucrat alliance has done much to write off the civil service’s credibility in society. There is a growing perception that civil servants are neither interested in nor capable of serving with competence and integrity. A case in point are the critical observations contained in the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Panama leaks case about some public-sector departments. Political parties have also expressed doubts with regard to the independent working of the joint investigation team that has been constituted in pursuance of the verdict.

The combined effect of the aforementioned factors is that civil service is no longer the career choice of those who perform well in academics, leaving largely the mediocre to compete for the once coveted positions.

By: Hussain H Zaidi –  Article Source: www.thenews.com.pk

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