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Square pegs, round holes

By Syed Saadat | From the Newspaper Dawn

THE phone rings in the Cabinet Division and a young officer answers to hear the deputy secretary saying “the honourable prime minister wants to announce relief for the people struck by a recent natural calamity; prepare a proposal”.
The officer prepares a very comprehensive proposal taking into account the economic state of the poor victims and inflation, as well as other factors. The proposal is submitted for approval. The phone rings again and the boss says, “Just copy-paste the amount from the proposal for the 2005 earthquake, replace the word ‘earthquake’ with ‘flood’ and submit it again. There is no need to revise the amount to be given away. Don’t try to be over-smart.” I am sure the 2005 proposal would have been created on the basis of that of the 1993 floods, and so on. We’re stuck in the last century. This is how the typical government office in Pakistan works.
Bureaucracy is the key to good governance, for civil servants take important decisions that guide the destiny of the country. They are recruited mainly through the CSS exam. There are 12 occupational groups in the civil service, yet the exam hardly takes into consideration the educational background, the aptitude and suitability of an individual for a particular service group.
As a result, we have cases where someone who holds a Master’s degree in English literature ends up doing debiting and crediting work in the audits and accounts service; someone who topped his university in journalism ends up in the Pakistan Railways; while an engineer is stuck in the information service. An expert in international relations may be calling the shots in the postal group and a camera-shy, introverted woman might end up in the foreign service, with the responsibility of projecting Pakistan’s image. A romantic poet might end up in the police service, which is a mismatch unless he plans to read his poetry to criminals.
The world is moving towards specialisation, with people knowing more and more about less and less. We in Pakistan have people who know less and less about more and more. The civil service needs reform, and the reform needs to start from the basic recruitment phase.
There has been a mushroom growth of ‘CSS academies’ around the country, which promise to prepare candidates for the exam. They specialise in helping candidates take notes, answer objective-type questions and they predict a set of 10 or 20 questions for each optional subject. The exam format has been deciphered and they manage a reasonable rate of success for their clients in the written exams. This has brought an end to the era of bureaucrats such as Mukhtar Masood, Qudrat Ullah Shahab, and Agha Shahi who preferred creating to cramming. The cramming approach is reflected in the decisions made by bureaucrats later on during their careers.
The exam has faults of its own, such as the fact that marking is inconsistent. One year, a subject — say, history — would net a candidate 193 marks out of 200; next year the highest score in the same subject would be just 93. (A person really did get 193 marks in history in recent years.) The discrepancy can only have two explanations: either Toynbee appeared in the exam and there was no K.K. Aziz the next year, or the system is inconsistent.
The exam currently comprises 1,500 marks divided up as 600 marks for optional subjects, 600 for compulsory subjects and 300 for the interview. Optional subjects should be done away with because they do not increase the candidate’s knowledge and are used only to accrue marks. Once the exam has been taken, these subjects are out of sight and later out of mind as well. Similarly, candidates that opt for a regional language as an optional subject gain unreasonably greater marks due to prevalent biases in the people who do the marking. This advantage is nothing but an impingement on merit and undermines the principle of a fair-playing ground.
Along with compulsory subjects there should be one additional paper depending on the choice a candidate makes on the basis of his education, aptitude and interest. The service groups should be divided into four categories. Candidates that want to join the police service, the district management group or the military lands and cantonment group should take the additional paper of law. The curriculum for this should not only be comprehensive but modern as well. Meanwhile, candidates interested in the information service, Pakistan Post, Pakistan Railways and the office management group should take an additional paper on marketing, media and management.
Individuals who are interested in serving in the foreign service or the commerce and trade group should take international relations as an additional paper. Financial administration should be the additional exam for candidates interested in accounts, customs and income tax.
Candidates should not be allowed to opt for more than one set of service groups in a given year. In this way, we will automatically get the right people — better motivated and better trained through the relevant education — for the right job. A bit of training at the Civil Services Academy focusing mainly on work ethics and grooming would set them and the country in the right direction. Lastly, I would like to answer a reader who asked me: “Do you really believe anybody is listening to you?” My answer is, “no, but that won’t stop me from saying it”.

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