After seeing the baffling CSS questions doing rounds on social media, I picked up the phone and called a retired federal secretary who belongs to the 1968 batch of the erstwhile CSP. I asked him about the competitive exam that he had to appear for, more than half a century ago. What he told me was not much different from what I had experienced in my own CSS exam 22 years ago. I then looked at the CSS question papers from last year and realised that they are still the same.
With all the developments in technology and recruitment practices, the CSS exams have somehow managed to remain frozen in time, for at least half a century, and presumably since 1947. Perhaps the only innovations have been clustering of elective subjects and inclusion of multiple-choice questions. The latter, if one judges it by the standard of leaked questions, has been a disaster.
How do you manage to stand still for decades while the world moves on? The answer is only known to an outdated government machinery, manifesting the remnants of the colonial British system.
But unlike us, the British moved on.
The UK civil service follows a four-stage recruitment process. The first stage is the ‘application sift’ to screen the applicants. This is something that the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) also does, but in a fairly rudimentary fashion. While the UK civil service requires writing a personal statement, a standard practice for international undergraduate and graduate admissions, the CSS application is limited to biographical and academic information.
The second stage consists of standardised tests taken to narrow down the applicants’ pool to about 20% of the candidates, through a simple, efficient, automated and low-cost process. The test includes questions on functional knowledge of contemporary issues or on standard IQ. The FPSC on the other hand undertakes the full-scale CSS exam for 18,000+ candidates, including 12 papers. It is a massive exercise that results in the selection of 300-400 candidates who are then taken to the interview stage. The pattern of exams is such that candidates can often game the system or get undue advantage based on disparity in how different subjects are scored.
The third and the most critical stage in the UK civil service recruitment is a two-day assessment centre. The assessment centre method has gained immense popularity in recent years and has been widely adopted by public and private sectors. The method includes a standardised evaluation of behaviour based on simulations, interviews, group activities, etc. to help in revealing various aspects of a candidate’s personality. Since this is a resource-intensive method, very few candidates are taken to this stage.
Pakistan’s CSS recruitment excludes this most important stage altogether and instead relies on a primitive psychological evaluation that leads to suitability restrictions on a handful of candidates.
The fourth stage is the panel interview, which is very similar to the final CSS interview, but by then it can hardly compensate for the critical weaknesses in the first three stages of the CSS exam.
The cost of this outdated system is huge. In 2019-20, FPSC spent Rs810 million for 290 CSS allocations and 1,000 other general recruitments. The average cost per recruitment turned out to be a staggering Rs600,000+. But even more alarmingly, considering the massive scale of CSS exams taking up at least 50% capacity of FPSC, one can safely assume that the government spent about Rs1.4 million to recruit each CSS candidate. As a comparison, LUMS charges about a million rupees per annum from an MBA student, for a full year of teaching, after selecting him from a wide pool of applicants.
It’s time to reform the expensive and outdated CSS examination system.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2021.