THESE days the Civil Superior Services (CSS) exam is under way to select our future civil servants.
Wouldn’t it be mind-boggling if, instead of choosing from a group of individuals training to swim for almost a year, the selection of the swimming team meant to represent Pakistan at the Olympics was done on the basis of who wrote the best essay on global warming?
Meritocracy is not about setting the wrong criteria and ensuring that it is followed; rather, it is about ensuring that everything from setting the criteria to implementing it is designed in a manner that upholds merit. Something very similar is done in choosing the members of the elite civil service of Pakistan.
Meritocracy is not about setting the wrong criteria.
No matter how poorly qualified you are for the job, all that matters is the score in a generic exam that one takes even before knowing the exact job description. There is a psychological and interview portion of the exam as well, but that is not enough to judge someone’s aptitude for a particular service group.
It can at best be enough to make sure that an individual is not an absolute misfit in government service.
Currently, one has nothing to worry about after passing the CSS exam as allocation to service groups is largely based on one’s ranking in the exam. Compare it with the military; the allocation to different groups is largely based on one’s performance during a two-year-long training at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. This period is definitely ample time to ascertain the mettle of individuals.
The common training programme (CTP) — the civilian equivalent of the PMA’s long-course training — does have an assessment system but that, besides being very arbitrary, has minimal impact on the career of civil servants.
This is the reason that young participants of the CTP are least motivated and consider the CTP as time to relax after burning the proverbial midnight oil to clear the CSS exam with flying colours. There is hardly a case where any civil servant has been dismissed from service for failure to complete his or her training.
As soon as they join the common training programme, a sense of superiority starts to manifest itself in individuals in varying degrees, depending on the service group they have been given and the process of learning stops right there and then. It is all downhill from there. The motto becomes ‘enter to learn, leave to rule’ or ‘enter to learn, leave to loot’ depending on the financial leverage of the service group that one is in.
The CSS exam is only an entry exam. But do we have any mechanism to ensure through this exam that it is an individual, who is good at interpersonal relationships, who is sent to the foreign service, rather than a particularly reclusive individual, or that someone who suffers from math anxiety is not sent to the inland revenue service and condemned to do tax calculations for the rest of his life?
Surely, the goal is to have a civil service where individuals work in areas they are best suited to.
Now the solution: selection of groups should not be done immediately after passing the CSS exam. All candidates should only get a letter stating that they have cleared the initial exam required for entry to the civil service and that training would now begin, and incomplete training would mean removal from service. This, for a start, would bring in the discipline and seriousness of purpose required to train future leaders of the country.
It is pertinent to mention that in the ’70s allocation to service groups was done after training. However, the practice was discontinued due to the possibility of personal bias creeping in. Giving up on what is correct due to poor implementation rather than improving implementation has been our perennial dilemma.
A 12-member committee with a member from each service group must work closely with all probationary officers during the course of the training and should decide the allocation of service groups after taking into consideration a range of factors including, but not limited to, academic performance, personal aptitude, relevant education and performance in training.
All members of the said committee should be at the same level of seniority with similar experience in service so that no one can influence or oblige the other. This flat organisational structure would ensure that no one is influenced by the other. This is how you pick the best people for critical jobs in public service.
Lastly, a humble reminder that this is just food for thought: there are a number of possible solutions to a particular problem but the first step to all of them is the realisation that there is a problem.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2016