Why do so few people pass the CSS exam?

MA Siddiqi on the control of and need for good bureaucrats

Why do so few people pass the CSS exam?
The Federal Public Service Commission has declared the results of the written part of its 2017 annual competitive examination for people who wish to join government service as a bureaucrat.

This year, 23,205 people applied but only 9,391 actually sat the exam—an abnormal gap between applications and candidates for the Central Superior Services (CSS) 2017 exam in February. Out of this, 3.32% or 312 candidates passed. This year’s performance is at par with that of the previous five years; there has been no improvement despite a constant country-wide clamour that the success rate has been dropping. One third of the successful candidates are young women (109). In spite of the generalist nature of their work, CSS cadres attract skilled personnel from almost all professional fields, the prominent ones being medicine, engineering and business management.

The CSS of Pakistan, a powerful part of the government machinery commonly known as the bureaucracy, uncannily reflects the inherent anomaly in human existence. The bureaucracy has assumed a central role in governmental decision-making and implementation despite having no detailed reference in the constitutions of nation states and having no role in policy designs of political regimes. It has evolved from a desultory imperial organizational apparatus to an integrated leviathan, becoming part of the power structure of a nation state. The growth of its influence may not be essentially underwritten by ideology but it is certainly the outcome of necessity and convenience. Bureaucracies may not be loved or respected but they are tolerated and considerably depended upon.

In Pakistan our bureaucracy owes its existence and influence to paperwork it churns out and then guards jealously. The intricate file work keeps its grip intact, frustrating political dispensation that frequently raises a hue and cry even in well-developed bureaucratic systems such as that of the United Kingdom that boasts of a well-entrenched tradition of firm political control on administrative institutions. Even in as late a year as 2014, former Prime Minister (also minister-in-charge of civil service) David Cameron publicly vowed to scrap more than 3,000 rules “dreamt up by Whitehall bureaucrats” potentially saving over 850 million pounds a year.

A history

Responding to accusations of nepotism and favouritism, the civil service of the East India Company was thrown open to competition in 1853. The gradual widening of administrative divisions increased the number of occupational groups for which the competitive examination was held.

Currently it is held for the recruitment for intermediate supervisory positions designated as BPS or grade 17 in twelve occupational groups categorized as administrative, financial and auxiliary services. The range of control of civil services on governmental activity in Pakistan is almost all-pervasive: they control 80% of state land through the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS) and the ‘deputy commissioner’ set rate of the price of land is still the countrywide benchmark; the rest of the 20% of state land is under military control but that too is regulated by the CSS occupational group, Military Lands & Cantonments (MLCG), in which uniformed services vie to appoint their nominee as its head honcho (DG MLC).

Law and order, although labeled a provincial subject, is mostly taken care of by the Police Service supervisory cadre (PSP), recruited through the CSS exam. The entire foreign affairs of the land are supervised by the Foreign Service mandarins (FSP), proud to work in the exclusive FO building in Islamabad (most civil servants operate from the Pakistan Secretariat or scattered offices). The Pakistan Customs (PCS) and Inland Revenue (IRS) are exclusive revenue-collecting agencies which every government keeps close, sheltered and pampered. No internal or foreign governmental payment is received, made or audited except through the offices of the Pakistan Audit & Accounts Service (PAAS).

The CSS occupational groups run the railways through the Railways Group (RC&TG), deliver countrywide post via the Postal Group (PG), manage imports, exports, commerce and trade courtesy the Commerce and Trade cadre (CTG). They try keeping an eye on the countrywide information dissemination network through the wobbly Information Group (IG) and manage the vast secretarial activity of government through trained office managers (OMG).

The recruitment to the civil service is done through the CSS exam conducted by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) every year in spring. The nine-member FPSC is a sought-after resting place for former bureaucrats who fiercely lobby for this influential sinecure. The current FPSC is composed of a chairman (former uniformed officer absorbed in the PAS), six PAS officers (including the redoubtable Nargis Sethi), two FSP officers and one two-star army general. The CSS exam is, however, considered to be the exclusive domain of the chairman and members only participate in the exercise as part of panels interviewing successful candidates of the written part (constituting a major part of the examination as it comprises 1,200 of the total of 1,500 marks of the competition). The FPSC altered the course material for 53 subjects offered in the competition and revised the marks of certain subjects by reducing or increasing them.  The revised syllabus was implemented in 2016.
In 2016, for the first time in recent memory, the government fell short by 158 qualifiers required to fill 351 vacancies as only 193 were finally available

Pass or fail

The dwindling success rate of the CSS exam is debated countrywide and the results of the last few years have raised concerns about the competition as a whole. In 2011, 9,063 candidates appeared and 786 finally qualified, yielding an 8.6% result. The success rate, although lowered, remained almost at par with that of the next year, 2012: 10,066 people appeared and 788 qualified (7.8%). The success rate plunged in 2013: 11,406 people sat the exam but only 220 qualified, shrinking the success percentage to a meagre 1.94%. No improvement was witnessed in 2014; 24,640 candidates applied out of which 13,169 appeared (a record of sorts, half of them not appearing!) and 377 candidates finally made it at a paltry 2.86%. The downward trend continued in 2015 as 12,176 appeared and 379 qualified at 3.11%. And finally in the dismal performance of 2016 only 202 or 2.09% qualified out of 9,643 candidates taking the examination.

There are many reasons for these numbers. The cardinal reason attributed to the incessantly dismal success rate is the corresponding lowering of academic standards. This is, however, a debatable point as the current academic milieu churns out successful professional output that is rising in every field of endeavour it becomes part of. Entire generations cannot be dismissed as substandard just because so few are qualifying this competitive examination.

A more probable reason is the failure to fit in the round cog of specifications bequeathed by a colonial emphasis on labyrinthine classical academic pursuits, the square peg of the specific requirements of current academic practices. It is precisely the search for this elusive ‘well-rounded’ species by the civil service guiding principles that continuously raises the bar of success that, in turn, puts tremendous pressure on intellectual credentials of precision-oriented candidates. The current emphasis on exact, and in certain cases, selective study, invariably falls short of the inferential knowledge and critical grasp of subjects CSS competition requires. The candidates will be well served if they appreciated and acquired a wide spectrum of understanding and interpretation of skills the CSS demands. It is not only advisable but also desirable to expand the contours of learning and not keep it limited to contrite subject material evaluated through multiple choice questions and specific answer regimes.

The failure rate conveys the impression that the CSS is an elitist, forbidden exercise whereas in actual fact it is not, as it gives young men and women from every segment of society a fair chance. Since the FPSC holds this competition it must devise a plausible standard of assessment that takes into account the current academic priorities and practices. Asking candidates to do a précis of passages written in rabid stultifying 19th century prose can surely give way to modern constructed versions of the English language. The sprawling range of inference required in equally gawky questions needs to be narrowed down. The extraordinarily huge discretion allowed to the examiner (he can conveniently and merrily fail 98% of candidates!) should also be curtailed. Although the government machinery can function through the tried and tested method of adding multiple duties to an assignment as a stop-gap arrangement to offset the paucity of personnel, there is a desperate need to promptly review the recruitment process as the 2016 result roundly belies the long-held conviction that the government gets the numbers it wants despite raising the bar as high as it wishes. In 2016, for the first time in recent memory, the government fell short by 158 qualifiers required to fill 351 vacancies as only 193 were finally available.

Ali Siddiqi is a former bureaucrat and runs an academic training outfit in Karachi. He can be reached at tviuk@hotmail.com