Comprehending the CSS Conundrum

The bureaucracy of Pakistan is a constant set of a state organs, responsible for turning the wheels that run the state’s machinery. But those joining as the new cells of this organ are no longer deemed as impressive as the older lot. With this year’s CSS exams seeing a success rate of mere 2.56%, Pakistan’s bureaucratic future projects a disconsolate image. Can the future of Pakistan’s central organ be saved with reforms? Aisha Saeed explores.

ack in the day becoming a government official was considered an honorable and a most sought after career choice not only because of the job security and stability that it provided, but also due to the fact that it gave servicemen the opportunity to make the life of thousands of their countrymen better. As it was a high stress and considerably low-paying career, only the most committed and dedicated of students opted to walk down the line of competitive examinations and only a handful of premier institutions could boast having their alumni in the highest of public offices in the country. Appearing in the central services examinations was a serious drill, not a question of a hit or miss or “availing a chance” that it has become nowadays.

A validation of this “chance” mentality lies in the results of the central superior services examination announced recently. Only 2.56% of the candidates applying for CSS exams 2019 managed to pass, giving a hint of the general decline in the caliber of candidates vying for some of the most influential public service spaces in the country. The pass percentage was 4.79% in 2018, almost twice as much as that achieved by this year’s applicants. Following the unsatisfactory results, the federal government announced changes in the criteria for appearing in the CSS examinations. Unlike before, aspirants would now be required to undergo a screening test before sitting the actual examination. 

But despite several cosmetic changes, the continued decline in the number of candidates passing each year is a harsh reminder of the larger picture of the country’s education and governance system. One may find it easy to blame Pakistani education system’s that concentrates on rote or even the dying culture of reading, but the problem may well be far minute – something within the system that requires deeper attention.

An examination similar to that of CSS is also compulsory for those wishing to join the Federal Civil Service in the US. The candidates are selected on merit, but eve after being inducted into service, candidates still need to go through extensive processes to be finally appointed to a key position. The process for joining the civil services is no different in the UK and the numbers of candidates clearing the examinations there remains impressive. The competition among the candidates undertaking civil services in both the US and the UK is high. Like Pakistan, thousands of candidates apply each year for a limited number of slots, yet retain the seriousness of appearing in the examinations and the responsibility that follows. Contrarily, CSS is only a Plan B for many of the Pakistani applicants.

Losing Interest

Asif Durrani, a career diplomat and Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the UAE and Iran, aptly explained the many reasons the country’s civil service was becoming an increasingly unattractive option for top academic performers“This year’s CSS examination results show a very disappointing picture. Out of over 23,000 candidates only 372 could qualify the written exam, which is less than 3% and a sad commentary on our educational standards. There could be many reasons for such a poor performance but it seriously reflects an emerging trend among the youth to stay away from public service, primarily because of political interference and favoritism played by political bosses,” Durrani opined. 

“The private sector has emerged as a much more lucrative avenue for employment than government service. Therefore, children coming from private schools normally prefer private sector over government jobs. Thirdly, government salaries are too low to cope with the rising cost of living. Unless one resorts to unfair means, it is almost impossible to survive in the existing public service salary structure. Lastly, and most probably, an overwhelming majority of candidates appearing for CSS come from government schools, whose performance has gone from bad to worse over the years. It is a sad commentary over the performance of successive governments to improve educational standards in schools and colleges. What we saw in the CSS exam results this year should serve as a wake up call for the government to seriously take remedial measures.”

Salman Bashir, the former foreign secretary also voiced similar concerns. “Poor CSS results are a source of concern. They depict deteriorating educational standards in the first place. Secondly, brighter students prefer the corporate sector and other more lucrative avenues than government service.  Thirdly, there is the issue of brain drain. Those who find the opportunity, go abroad. Fourthly, government service no longer enjoys the prestige it once did. Fifthly, general trends such as technology, globalization, information and communications revolution as well as demographic factors are reshaping societies everywhere. This means that state structures no longer hold the same importance they did in previous decades. Also, the inability of the civil service and state institutions to societal change is a critical factor affecting governance and the apparent drift that afflicts governance. Yet, all is not lost and there are still very talented, and committed candidates opting to serve the country,” he concluded. 

While the general trend might be worrying, there remains a silver lining. An increasing number of talented girls are making it to the civil services of Pakistan and becoming important members of country’s bureaucracy. Once considered a male dominated profession, civil service now has some brilliant female officers working alongside their male colleagues in almost all service groups. 

Takeaway

Given the concerns raised by the former bureaucrats as well as the worrisome trends being witnessed with regards to CSS examination, the government must put its head down to introduce some serious reforms. For one, it must reevaluate the structure of civil service itself. Years of political interference, disregard for merit in routine operations, and cumbersome process of transfers and promotions has taken the sheen off of what was once a premier and highly noble profession. Reforms that address these issues are one way the state can again make this service highly attractive for the brightest of minds in Pakistani schools, colleges and universities, and not to those who aim to join the service for the sake of power alone.

Secondly, the government must also concentrate on improving the structure of the CSS examination and the way it is conducted. The current examination system is such that those banking on their knowledge alone can only dream of passing the exam, as they see those with the “focused training” of attempting the exam making it to the corridors of power. These are few of the many critical steps needed to begin improving the public service structures in Pakistan. But they are certainly essential to ensuring that public service and the public in Pakistan see better days.