Civil Service Reforms: the CSS examination and initial training

Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasized the “depoliticization of bureaucracy” in his very first address to the nation. Since then he has twice addressed the civil servants assuring them of political non-interference in their working. There is no doubt that the bureaucracy in Pakistan is largely functioning as an arm of the political masters rather than as a pillar of the state. Hence, the high priority accorded by the PM to an improvement in affairs has been welcomed by all sane quarters. PTI has often reiterated the KP Police “depoliticization model” as its signature achievement. The model revolves around the vigilance by a strong and efficient Police Inspector General and ensuring that police officers are not moved from their postings before fixed tenures. This may have improved the working of the police in the short-term. However, it will be far too simplistic, if not naïve, to assume that a limited top-down approach can replace the acute need for wholesome civil service reforms.

Does the political leadership fully comprehend that improved functioning of the bureaucracy requires more than its depoliticization? One can only hope that the Task Force on Civil Service Reforms, constituted by the PM, will come up with recommendations for holistic civil service reform that is overdue by at least 40 years. In fact since 1973 the recruitment, training and evaluation procedures of the civil services have not been challenged. This probably accounts in substantial degree for the failure of partial attempts to dilute bureaucratic structures, for instance by General Musharraf. Let me restrict this analysis to what needs to be done to improve the recruitment presently being done through the Central Superior Services (CSS) Examination and subsequent training. An overhaul of the CSS Exam and the initial training for successful candidates is likely to impact the quality of federal government officers leading most ministries and spearheading state functioning, even at the provincial level. It is hence critical in the long-run to any attempts to improve the performance of bureaucracy, whether fully depoliticized or not.

The CSS examination through which aspirants for 12 different services (ranging from District Management to Railways) are evaluated is no more feasible in its present shape in the era of specialization. Optional subjects are the sweet will of the candidates. Some of the subjects are more high-scoring than others. So, landing the top slots is as much a game of strategy as is of intellect. Foremost, the minimum eligibility for the civil services needs to be enhanced to Master’s or a four-year graduation.

Does the political leadership fully comprehend that improved functioning of the bureaucracy requires more than its depoliticization? One can only hope that the Task Force on Civil Service Reforms, constituted by the PM, will come up with recommendations for holistic civil service reform that is overdue by at least 40 years. In fact since 1973 the recruitment, training and evaluation procedures of the civil services have not been challenged

Second, the candidates must demonstrate closer relevance to their preferred service cadres. This could be at two levels. Either the basic qualification of the candidate or the elective subjects opted for must be relevant to his/her career choice. If the former route is taken, this would imply doing away with the CSS examination altogether and instead conducting a separate examination for each service. However, this would reduce the pool of candidates for each professional group by, for instance, “banning” all those with the highest qualification of BSc. Engineering from competing for Police and District Management. With a dwindling number of the brightest opting for the CSS Exam each year, such a step is clearly not the need of the hour. So, it is more practical to make it incumbent for the candidates to, for instance, opt for International Relations, if they desire to be considered for the Foreign Service, and Economics/Statistics to be considered for the Inland Revenue Service.

Third, the elective subjects ought to be rendered more challenging, perhaps at the cost of low weightage and more simplified evaluation in compulsory subjects like Islamiat and General Science.

The foremost reform needed in the after-selection training of successful candidates is to do away with the Common Training Program (CTP) introduced 45 years back. All selected candidates for the 12 services participate in the CTP. It may have promoted better camaraderie among various professional groups and helped foster inter-group friendships. However, do the citizens of Pakistan really deserve to bear the heavy cost of the CTP? First, there is no evidence that the camaraderie has contributed to any improvement in service delivery. Second, given the differing learning needs of the trainees, most of the discipline taught during the CTP are far too general to be of future utility. In fact to keep up appearances and prolong the training, the compulsory subjects of the CSS Exam are re-taught. Third, despite a common examination and training, the lucrativeness and desirability of certain professional groups as compared to others has not diminished.

Conversely, the emphasis must shift to the Specialized Training Program (STP), which is specific to the professional group one has been selected for and which currently follows the CTP. The STP needs to be strengthened in two respects. First, it must entail a regular evaluation of trainees’ basic aptitude and comprehension when dealing with the growing complexities of what they need to learn. The door must be kept open for transferring an individual, who demonstrates little or no aptitude for the originally assigned service group, to another, more relevant, professional cadre. On the other hand, the STP must also be taken as an avenue to spot the brightest and ease them either into a fast career track or to groom them for specific (perhaps the most technical and rewarding) assignments.

Second, the STP curricula (assuming that the CTP is abolished) must be updated to encompass modern challenges (e.g. climate change) as well as the demand side concepts/legal frameworks (e.g. access to information, E-governance etc.).

The above-suggested reforms do entrust greater discretion with the examination/training institutions to shape or destroy civil service careers. In Pakistan’s peculiar milieu, shifting a trainee, for instance, from the Customs & Excise Group to the less-sought after Commerce & Trade Group might invite allegations of favoritism and injustice. However, breaking the stranglehold of the “merit” of the CSS Exam as the sole arbiter of civil service officers’ future for 30 plus years is a primary need which ought to be considered seriously by the Task Force on Civil Service Reforms. These reforms will inculcate the understanding, right from the beginning, that CSS is the entry test but aptitude and consistent capacity-building are to shape the career thereafter. There will be fast track promotions if you are the right man for the right job. But there will be no permanent entitlements on the basis of the entry examination alone. So far, we have been persisting with the status quo to recruit and train civil service entrants. Anyone may confirm from the citizens of Pakistan who have been footing the bill: it is not working.

The writer is a Political economy analyst and was a former civil servant

Published in Daily Times, February 20th 2019.

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