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An insider's view on how to improve civil service recruitment

October 21, 2015 08:43 IST

China operates a huge, rigorous selection and training process, from the junior-most levels to minister and governor. We can learn much from the numbers processed and the objective, says Kishan S Rana 

In 1954, as a wide-eyed 17-year-old university student (in those pre-Class XII days), I trudged up and down the streets of New Delhi, camera in hand, looking for that decisive moment, to capture the right image.

The Holy Grail for a novice photographer was acceptance by The Statesman for its then iconic Monday column, 'New Delhi Notebook', and my photo that made it (probably in 1956) was taken on Shah Jahan Road, of a solitary tonga, ambling under a tree canopy, early on a mist-draped winter morning.

That road is home to Dholpur House, the seat of the Union Public Service Commission, the mecca for my ilk; many of us dreamt of the foreign or administrative service as the pinnacle of our ambition.

The UPSC is unique among Indian institutions in its sustained, impeccable reputation for probity and fairness.

It will thus be with special caution, I imagine, that the expert committee set up by the government of India in September 2015 will tackle its mandate to review all the processes and modalities of civil service recruitment.

Its terms of reference are: 'to arrive at an examination pattern that is holistic and does not exhibit any bias for or against candidates from any particular stream, subject area, language or region.'

This committee is to give its report in six months, and one hopes it will honour that deadline, notwithstanding the complexity of its task. It is to study the plan of examination, number of papers, their structure and duration, marking scheme, weightage of marks and system of evaluation, besides age limits and the wider factors mentioned above.

Offered here are some thoughts. First, consider the huge numbers that our civil service exams involve. Roughly 9,50,000 apply for the annual selection; of these, 4,60,000 take the 'preliminary' exam.

That number is ruthlessly pared down to a mere 15,000-odd that qualify for the 'main' exam.

This second written test winnows the number to 4,000 that are called for interviews. We might call them the 'grand catchment' for the annual civil service intake. In the current system, they appear before the multiple interview boards that work in parallel, each chaired by a UPSC member, assisted by a cluster of retired officials and others.

Under time pressure, a mere half-hour is prescribed for each interview; in practice this leaves barely 25 minutes to engage each candidate, and assess her/his worth for public service. Is that sufficient for such a major selection?

Parliament has been concerned with the subjectivity of interviews, and over the years, the marks assigned to it have been pared down, to minimise this element. We also see a trend to do away with the interview altogether, for the junior branches of public services. But subjectivity can also be tackled another way, by making the interview process multi-layered, assessed separately by several professional panels, leaving no scope for manipulation.

Other public services around the world stretch their assessment of individuals to two or more days, conducted via complex programmes of individual and group interviews and discussions, tests and activities that gauge ability to respond to time and other pressures, people skills, service attitudes and empathy, plus psychological profile. Many will say there is simply no time to do this. That connects with my next point.

Second, why not accept the demand of the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Police Service -- and perhaps from the Indian Administrative service as well -- and subject that final crop winnowed from the written exam process, to separate interview streams, suited to particular services?

The IFS needs officials with sound communication ability, outgoing personalities, those that are adept at engaging people across cultures. Every country with a serious-minded diplomatic service, be it Singapore, Thailand or the UK, conducts such interviews over two or three days, often through a residential programme.

Before someone throws up their arms that the UPSC cannot possibly get into such lengthy interviews, why not outsource them to the indenting ministries, closely monitored by the UPSC? Thus, the ministry of external affairs, seeking 40 recruits, would interview the top 160 (in conformity with established reservation formulas), that have offered the IFS as their choice, in that same cascading service selection process that applies today to the final appointment of the successful candidates.

The ministry of external affairs can hold a full-day interview, or stretch it to two days, under close supervision by a UPSC member.

The home ministry would similarly conduct interviews for the IPS and perhaps the department of personnel for the IAS.

One might imagine another ministry, say finance, opting to handle its interviews for those opting for financial management services, such as audit, customs, and income tax. For other services user ministries might opt to jointly or individually establish their own processes.

Third, the professional work of IFS officials is principally in the world's international lingua franca, and that requires mastery over English.

This is not a matter of patriotic attachment to Indian mother languages. One can think of a special formula of, say, a year of additional English language training for candidates that have opted to write UPSC papers in Indian languages.

However implemented, the requirement that IFS officials need fluid mastery over English becomes self-evident to anyone that has attended a drafting group meeting at any international conference.

Fourth, in a clamour for age relaxation under various formulas and concessions implemented over time, the average age of entry has risen continually, as has the spread in the ages of the youngest and oldest in every service cohort.

That does not make for healthy internal dynamics within services. Why not cutback to stricter age norms?

Finally, a country that does not often come to mind when we look to foreign experiences: consider China, in addition to the more obvious choices. Besides its public services, the Chinese Communist Party operates a huge, rigorous selection -- and training -- process, from the junior-most to minister and governor levels.

We can learn much from the numbers processed and the surprisingly objective procedures. Always, the caveat will apply, that no foreign system can do more than offer some leads, which need examination and reframing, for highly selective adaptation in India.

-- The writer, a former diplomat, is honorary fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies

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