The CSS downturn By Hussain H Zaidi

A couple of weeks ago, the Federal Public Service Commission announced the results of the written test of the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination.
Of a total number of 14,521 candidates that appeared in the examination, only 372 – or 2.56 percent – could qualify. These are dismal numbers. Now these successful candidates will be interviewed by the commission in addition to subjecting them to medical and psychological examinations.
Thereafter, the final list will be drawn up on the basis of the total marks obtained by the candidates in the written examination and viva. Subsequently, the successful candidates will be offered one of the occupational groups depending on the total number of vacancies, their ranking on the list, their own preference as well as adverse comments, if any, by the psychologists. Not all the candidates who get through both written and oral examinations will necessarily get a job. This rather protracted and uncertain process made the CSS examination, at least on the face of it, highly competitive over the years.
The question on hand is why the once highly competitive race for filling vacancies for entry into the federal bureaucracy – despite no change in the format – is running out of steam. The current poor CSS results are not a one-off phenomenon. For the last few years, the competitive examination has been giving extremely low pass percentage. Is the downswing in CSS results an index of our ‘precipitously declining’ education standards? Or have the expectations of the examiners suddenly racked up, which the candidates by and large are not measuring up to? There may be an element of truth in both these explanations. However, the seedy CSS results need to be seen in a larger context, as indicative of the cultural, economic and political changes that society is passing through.
As in the case of any other contest, the competitiveness of the CSS examination is chiefly a function of the value of the prize in the eye of the contestants – both actual and potential. All else equal, in case the pay-off is deemed to be high, the competition will be fierce, attracting the best of the eligible lot. By contrast, if the pay-off is regarded as not worth a serious effort, the intensity of the competition will go down. The high or low pay-off is considered in a relative sense. While setting a value on a prize, the contestants also take into account other comparable prizes on which they can draw a bead.
The prize, when it comes to the CSS examination, is recruitment as a civil servant. In a larger sense, however, the pay-off is a rewarding life-long career. It follows, therefore, that the competitiveness of the CSS examination depends, more than any other factor, on the prestige that the institution of civil service commands relative to any other career choice. That prestige, in turn, is a function of a set of political, economic, and cultural factors.
Before taking stock of these factors, it’s important to refer to Max Weber’s famous characterization of the bureaucracy as the “legal-rational authority.” The word ‘legal’ signifies that a civil servant’s discretion in dealing with the matter on hand is constrained by the relevant laws, rules and precedents. Rather than being arbitrary, the decision taken or the input provided for decision-making by a civil servant must stand the legal test.
The word ‘rational’ implies that every case is examined thoroughly and dispassionately and that the recommendation or decision rests upon the best available evidence – evidence-based decision-making as it’s called. Neither prejudices nor biases, neither fear nor favour, should bear upon disposal of cases.
Paradoxical though it may seem, it’s in being legal and rational that the civil service’s strengths and weaknesses both lie. While these characteristics enable civil servants to discharge their functions in a professional and merit-oriented manner, too strong a commitment to rules, decorum and precedents – which in our case are largely archaic – breeds excessive formalism and a deep concern for observing the hierarchy. This prevents them from thinking out-of-the-box, deciding expeditiously and adapting themselves to the emerging norms of organizational behaviour. In most of the government offices in Pakistan, for example, the manual file system and the tall organizational structure are still in vogue, which delays decision-making in an era in which time is on a high premium.
Over the years the prestige of the civil service in Pakistan has gone downhill. An institution’s relative prestige depends in the main on three indicators: the authority it wields, the perks and privileges its members enjoy, and its perceived contribution to the social good. In case of the civil service, all the three indicators have registered a downturn.
The role of the state has shrunk under the influence of neo-liberalism, the most powerful contemporary socio-economic doctrine. In the neo-liberal worldview, the state is a necessary evil; therefore, its functions must be kept at a minimum. Instead, the private sector (corporations) and the civil society assume a more important role.
In Pakistan as well, several activities which were once regarded as among the core functions of the state – education, health, transport etc – have been transferred to businesses or the civil society. The government still runs schools and hospitals but the quality and predictability of their services comes under question from time to time. The same goes for Pakistan Railways and the national air carrier. The lack of quality services provided by public-sector enterprises, together with their poor finances, lends credibility to the case for privatization, which is seen as undermining bureaucratic authority.
As part of the opening up of the economy, the government is increasingly being seen as more of a facilitator than a controller or organizer of economic activity. Such developments have curtailed the bureaucracy’s legitimate powers as well as rent-seeking derived from it.
Some other related developments have also dented the bureaucracy’s relative prestige. The public sector no longer enjoys monopoly over job creation. Over the past two decades, not only has the private sector expanded substantially but the job base has also widened considerably. As a result, young people today have a greater variety of jobs to choose from as compared with their predecessors. Two, wealth has become the capital determinant of status and the principal instrument of power. In the past as well, civil servants earned less than other professionals; all the same, their position was regarded as prestigious in view of the authority that they wielded.
To top it all, the civil service has been heavily politicized and demoralized. Owing to the growing culture of political patronage and favouritism, the distinction between demonstrating accountability towards a person and an institution and displaying loyalty towards a public interest and a political party has been eroded over the years. Against their call of duty, civil servants are expected by their political masters to remain loyal to a political party rather than the public interest and remain obedient to the boss instead of the law. From being a public service institution, the bureaucracy has been reduced to an agency of political patronage.
In the absence of any definite rule in respect of their term of office, civil servants find themselves in an insecure position. The sense of insecurity is one of the reasons – and, in many cases, the major one – which makes them comply with the wishes, fair or foul, of influential quarters.
A recent phenomenon that is impairing the bureaucracy’s professionalism is the on-going accountability process. The untrammeled powers being exercised by the National Accountability Bureau and its top brass are making both politicians and civil servants live on their nerves. Whereas as a rule a politician gets several bites at the cherry, being on the wrong side of the law – squarely or unjustly – draws the curtain on a civil servant’s career and consigns him/her to ignominy once and for all.
The civil service is thus no longer the career of choice for top performers in academics, who don’t want to be sucked into an unrewarding career, leaving largely the mediocre to compete for the once coveted positions. The trend seems to be irreversible.

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