Civil Servants or bureaucrats are agents of the public and hence they are also called public servants. It is expected that as agents, they will uphold interest of their principle in contrast to their self interest. This principal-agent relationship also entails that they will be competent enough to fulfill official tasks assigned to them. Sadly, our civil servants are known neither for their selflessness nor competence. Civil service weakness results from classic principal-agent problems of “adverse selection” and “moral hazard” i.e the principle does not have full information to select perfect agents and their personal interest does not correspond to public interest.

The selection of civil servants in Pakistan has emerged as an issue for public debate again after the recent CSS examination results in which just 2 percent of the candidates were able to qualify. The debate has so far revolved around three issues; declining level of general education in country, lack of interest by bright students towards civil service and the anachronistic examination with too much focus on English language and cramming. The assumption is that these issues influence the selection of competent people in service, which in turn affects the performance of the public sector. These issues as well as the assumption itself are contested and incomplete.

Firstly, the passing percentage is not an indicator of a fall in quality. In the Indian civil Service Examination results announced few days ago, only three percent qualified and around hundred vacancies remained vacant. There are number of professional examinations like accountancy, medicine and computer sciences where passing percentage remains very low. Similarly our education system is far from perfect but this imperfect system does produce enough quantity of quality professionals like doctors, business managers, engineers and lawyers. This brings us to the second assumption that besides the quality of education, the civil service is not attracting the available best and the brightest.

Each year the number of candidates is increasing gradually. Last year the figure was twenty thousand. The rise in numbers aside, there are hardly any candidates which are not post-graduates from the country’s best available and even foreign universities, notwithstanding minimum condition of a simple BA. Understandably every LUMS graduate does not intend to join civil service and actually all of them should not. It is just like every Harvard or Oxford graduate does not join USA’s or UK’s public service. Each year, the qualified candidates turn out as a mix of all disciplines given the fact that final allocations are done on the basis of provincial quotas with only ten percent vacancies for the open merit.

Thirdly, the exam itself is subject to criticism for not being able to select suitable candidates. This criticism is quite ironic when considered along with the reservation on low pass percentage. If anything, the examination agency i.e. Federal Public Service Commission continuously strives to keep the bar high and deny unfair advantage to any group like engineers and science graduates. The question of who is the “best and brightest” is also relative. At the entry level, the candidates can be judged on information, comprehension and analysis. Essay writing involves all three and is still a major form of assessment the world over at post-graduate level. The skill building is done at the training stage which spans over more than two years. The credibility of the examination itself is taken for granted in these testing times, but there has hardly been any major blot on transparency and fairness of process.

There can be arguments for and against the selection process, but there is no denying that performance and competency of civil service leaves much to be desired. This brings us back to the principle-agent problem. The civil servants might be academically fit, better informed and suave in communication but adverse selection is still the issue. Not at the entry level which is still elaborate, systematic and largely considered fair but the latter stages which are arbitrary, haphazard and largely considered unfair. The reason lie in the ‘system’ which is the exact opposite to what a system should be i.e. standard and predictable.

The absence of standards has created a crisis of specialisation. Newly recruited confident, energetic and hardworking civil servants turn into insecure generalists who struggle to cope with the lack of specialisation and lack of motivation. The latter comes from the lack of incentive to work and improve professionally. One solution is doing away with a single combined examination and replacing it with separate selections by departments on a professional basis. The other possibility is the introduction of performance based incentives. No development so far on both. In the absence of legal incentives of remuneration and promotions, the system is left in the hands of adversely selected agents whose priority is personal interest only. Unless these legal incentives along with fair monitoring are ensured, the problem of adverse selection is unlikely to go.

 

n             The writer is a member of Police Service

                of Pakistan and was Senior Superintendent of Police in Peshawar.