Reforming the Civil Service

The Pakistani civil service, despite calls for repeated structural reforms, remains modeled on the pre-partition British model. Over the years, the civil service has suffered from diminished capacity, nepotism, over-politicization, mismanagement, all of which has rendered it impotent in offering basic public service and providing good governance. Bureaucratic procedures, in the public domain, are seen as exploitative and cumbersome; civil servant officers are seen as corrupt, indolent and indifferent to the plight of the people they serve. The intrusion of the military into the civil service in the form of retired army generals acting in key civil posts-the chairmanship of the Federal Public Service Commission- has demoralized the bureaucracy and damaged the credibility of promotions based on merit. The devolution of power has precipitated administrative confusion and the subsequent breakdown of service delivery at the district level. Low salaries and the absence of an effective accountability mechanism has resulted in widespread corruption and impunity. The negative image of bureaucrats in the public imagination has weakened the institutional framework of the civil service, reducing their ability to maintain law and order and adequately address public grievances. All things considered, there is an urgent need for reform.

Reforming the CSS Selection Process:

The selection process has come under intense castigation from policy makers and applicants alike, for its rigid approach in relation to the nature and content of the syllabus, the structure of the exam, the rote learning mindset imbued and one may suspect, encouraged in the examination process. The subject groupings require revision in terms of allocating the relevant group of applicants to their respective areas of expertise and specialization; for example, a candidate who primarily opts for the sciences should not be allocated to the Foreign Service group, notwithstanding performance, for he or she would simply not have the required skillset to be able to interact with international diplomats, or constructively design the foreign policy of the country, in line with national interest and strategic imperatives. Secondly, the general subjects, which include the languages, Islamiat and Pakistan Studies, should be used as a screening device for filtering out qualified applicants, who would then be selected to appear in the strenuous and exhaustive subject exams. Put simply, a candidate with weak English skills, as has been found the case in the majority of applicants, would struggle with the subject exams, which require as a pre-condition a certain grasp over the English language. This is a simple method through which the CSS exams can become more organized, transparent and efficient, saving precious time and resources.

In my opinion, greater emphasis needs to be directed towards the subject examinations, which exhaustively test the candidates’ knowledge and more importantly, their analytical and reasoning abilities. Grading is not centralized, with considerable variance in the marking tendencies of individual examiners. The Establishment Division would have to carefully structure the marking process; by not burdening any one specialist- say an economics professor at the prestigious Karachi University should share the workload with another professor from Punjab University. Needless to say, candidates put in a lot of time, effort and money (with the proliferation of academies) in their perpetration and it would be colossally unfair if they suffer because of the lax attitude of some examiners.

From what I have gathered, candidates, even those who have successfully cleared the written exam, remain intimidated about the interview process, in what, taken collectively, is an aura of mystery and unmistakable fear. Candidates fret about being confused in the rush of the moment, and it does not help that the interview panel maintains a strict demeanor, does not break the ice, and does not shy away from tough questioning. This, of course, cannot be generalized to all interview panels, for there are exceptions; the point instead is that there does exist this pre-conception that the interviewers are hardnuts out to “get you”. This requires that the ED work with the applicants to improve and reform the process through workshops and training programs for both applicants and interviewers.

Variance also persists in student preferences of subject exams, with the sciences not preferred by the majority, owing to their supposed difficulty and low scoring potential. With students rushing to appear in what are considered easy scoring subjects, an imbalance in the number of applicants becomes evident for humanities and languages on one side and for sciences on the other.

The Establishment Division cites the overall decline in the quality of education as the major reason for the abject performance of applicants, as seen in the last two decades, and while the flailing and under-staffed education sector does account for this negative trend, one would also have to factor in the structure and format of the exam itself. The questions, more often than not, fail to judge the intellectual ability of a candidate, relying instead on rote learning and prepared academy notes. In the history exam, instead of discerning the candidate’s understanding of history as a process, overdue emphasis is placed on knowing frivolous information, like the exact day and date of a certain historical event. The English section tests synonyms and idioms, both of which comprise rote learning and memorization of hundreds of terms. All too often, the questions are poorly worded and simplistic; consider, for instance, “Write down a comprehensive essay on the judicio-political system of Islam”. This particular question is tailor made for an answer lacking in creativity and intellectual perspective. The history paper again is mildly shocking in its endorsement and assimilation of the state narrative-the genocide of 1971 is treated as a Hindu conspiracy, as implied in the question. If a candidate takes an alternative view of history, one that radically differs from the textbook narrative, he or she risks failing the exam.

Moving Forward: Policy Implications

A detailed paper from Columbia University entitled ,”The Politics of Civil Service Reform in Pakistan” lays out the mechanism for a fundamental restructuring of the civil service:

“There are several ways in which greater public support could be generated for civil service reform. The increasingly influential role of the electronic media sector in Pakistan in informing and influencing public opinion provides perhaps the best opportunity to raise greater public awareness regarding the crisis confronting the civil service.46 Pakistani academic institutions and think tanks could also be supported to develop stronger research and analytical capacity in the area of public administration reform. More resources also need to be devoted to carefully targeted information campaigns to better inform and convince key constituencies, including cabinet members, parliamentarians, the media, political parties, the private sector and NGOs, about the importance of civil service reforms.47 Unless awareness of the crisis confronting the civil service is better communicated in Pakistan, and the pressure for civil service reform comes from within Pakistan rather than being imposed by international donors, its chances of success will be slim. There is still time to strengthen and straighten the rusted frame of Pakistan’s civil service, but this urgently requires carefully crafted political strategies and tactics to overcome disincentives for reform, along with efforts to create a broader constituency demanding reform”


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