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Revitalising CSS performance

The first competitive examination under the newly revised Central Superior Services (CSS) subject syllabi was held earlier this year. Out of 9,643 candidates who appeared in the competitive exam, only 202 candidates passed the written exam — the first in a series of rigorous testing which includes medical and psychological exams and interviews — resulting in an abysmal 2.09pc pass rate. The result lead to a crescendo of criticism directed towards the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC), with the commission’s mode of work coming under intense public scrutiny.

Over the past 10 years, the FPSC has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of aspirants applying as well as appearing for the CSS exam. In 2006, 7,066 candidates applied for the exam and 4,125 candidates appeared for it. Those numbers rose to 20,717 appplicants and 9,463 appearances in 2016. The number of candidates appearing for the CSS exam reached a peak of 13,170 in 2014.

As evident from above, although the general trend regarding applicants has been moving upwards, the number of candidates actually passing the written examination has always been erratic. The pass percentage in 2006 was 6.6pc, which decreased to 5.53pc in 2007, rose to 16.22pc in 2008 before it declined once again to 8.22pc in 2010. Another increase in pass percentage was witnessed at 9.7pc in 2011 and at 3.3pc in 2013, with a steady decline in pass rates after both these years.

As part of the recruitment process, competitive exams form the backbone of civil service and thus, good governance. Therefore, if this trend is analysed objectively, popular opinion — that the FPSC is biased and deliberately discourages candidates from appearing for the examinations — does not hold merit. However, the pass/fail trend itself should not be ignored as it points to an alarming situation on various fronts, the foremost of which is the severe decline in education standards and the shrinking employment opportunities across the country.

Given these trends, civil society at large and aspirants in particular should then focus their efforts to address its underlying causes — especially the woes that beset Pakistan’s failing education system. It is worrying that, instead, the FPSC is receiving the most flak for introducing much-needed and long overdue revisions in subject syllabi, its scheme and grouping of optionals/electives.

Since its inception as the Imperial Civil Service in the 19th century, the civil service (via bureaucrats) has acted as a linchpin in administering the everyday affairs of the government and ensuring continuity of service delivery irrespective of political upheavals. As such, it is imperative that the civil service consist of the best, brightest and most competitive individuals who possess a passion for public duty. As part of the recruitment process, competitive exams then form the backbone of civil service given that the quality of Pakistan’s future governance hinges upon it.

Over the years, however, the decline in the quality of new recruits has resulted in poorer governance. Politicising the service further weakened the institution, and bureaucracy was blamed for its perceived facilitation of malpractice by being hand-in-glove with corrupt politicians. This has tarnished the image of the once prestigious CSS to the point that the general public has become increasingly discontented with its performance.

The deterioration demanded that immediate steps be taken to arrest this downward trend, and the FPSC’s change in CSS competitive examination modalities is one such bold step in the right direction. In the face of changing needs and demands of the day, it is necessary that the new generation of civil servants be equipped with the concepts and tools necessary for modern day governance.

An examination system that merely prefers individuals on the basis of the highest score in subjects such as sociology or journalism (considered the easiest in scoring) is not enough. The previous scheme of subjects unfairly favoured applicants with social sciences and humanities backgrounds. Looking at past scoring trends, the majority of aspirants — including professionals like doctors and engineers — opted instead for subjects such as history, languages and the law, while specialised subjects such as economics, public administration, political science etc were avoided due to tougher marking schemes.

Given the scenario, the new changes introduced to the structure and composition of the exam are, therefore, highly welcome. In fact, the FPSC needs to actively pursue various other necessary reforms such as overhauling the method of candidates’ allocations to various groups and services. Since most of the groups and services require specialised knowledge — such as the Inland Revenue Service, Foreign Service, and Audit and Accounts Service — and others need specific skills and temperaments — such as the Pakistan Administrative Service and Police Service — it is imperative that allocation not be done solely on the basis of overall score, but keeping in view the personality traits and academic backgrounds of the candidates.

Additionally, the FPSC ought to conduct the written examination in two stages — a general exam to sift through candidates and a specialised exam to allocate candidates to each service and group. Such a process would ensure the selection of appropriate professionals against each vacancy, increasing efficiency and improving service delivery. Also, any specialised training imparted to the candidates would then build on their already strong conceptual knowledge base, thus allowing for focus on practical applications.

Other reforms the FPSC should diligently pursue include pushing for increase in pay and incentives; vigorous work performance monitoring; and de-politicisation of the civil service, with increased accountability and transparency. A more rigorous and updated recruitment process will yield long-term results by attracting candidates who are passionate about public service, have the necessary knowledge and skills to deliver, and a purposeful drive to serve their country first and foremost.

The writer is a civil servant who has worked on CSS syllabi and other civil service reforms at the Establishment Division.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2016

Aisha Ghumman, "Revitalising CSS performance," Dawn. 2016-10-31.
Keywords: Education , Competitive examination , Central Superior Services , Psychological exams , Medical exam , CSS exam , Recruitment process , Civil services , Education standards , Employment opportunities , Civil society , Education system , Examination system , Public administration , Foreign service , Revenue Service , Audit service , Accounts Service , General exam , FPSC , CSS