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OP-ED: System loss and a failed civil service

  • Published at 06:02 pm July 11th, 2020
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

The prejudicial nature of our BCS exams has led to highly inefficient government institutions

The pre and ongoing Covid-19 response management in Bangladesh appears to be a failure on many fronts: Health, highways, industry, finance, relief. The disastrous system loss testifies that the system is not working.

Given that such feelings are valid, one should ask, what do we mean by system? System is an abstract notion. We cannot really point our fingers at the “system.” Simply put, a system is nothing but the people who run that system.

Who runs the system?

When we blame the system, we actually blame the individuals who as a collective execute that system. As such, if a system malfunctions, one needs to look at those individuals who are the building blocks.

In Bangladesh, those individuals are the public servants, the officers, who make up the Bangladesh civil services. 

They are the movers and shakers of the executive, and it is the executive that runs the government by coordinating between various departments and sectors such as administration, finance, health, industry and labour, and law enforcement, to name a few.

Thus, it is indeed high time we probed further into why our civil service departments lack meticulous and proper response. After all, the Bangladesh Civil Service examination is recognized as one of the toughest and most competitive public exams in the country. With government service remaining the most sought after job for graduates, BCS is a formidable sector for revenue. 

With quotas as the most debated issue about the BCS, what remains not amply discussed are the eligibility criteria, syllabus, and question patterns of the exam. Except for certain technical and scientific cadres (teaching, health, fisheries, agriculture, PWD, railway engineers, radio engineers, to name a few), most BCS cadres do not require specific academic training or background to apply.

The result is disastrous on not one but two different levels:

1. This sharply discriminates against non-science students, ie, those who studied social sciences or business in their undergrad, and those who didn’t have a science background in their SSC/HSC.

2. This results in inappropriate placement of candidates to crucial service positions. 

What this means

The Bangladeshi national curriculum is highly prejudicial. The rationality behind dividing students into science, business, and humanities groups may superficially appear sound (under the assumption that, if you are not good at maths, then it is wise to study business or humanities), but the reality has many more layers.

The students who study science are considered to be sharp and brilliant, while business students are okay, and humanities students are treated as lacking academic prowess. This discrimination affects non-science students in their academic performance.

In fact, the discrimination is so rampant, many “good institutes” don’t even bother to have a humanities section at all.

Nevertheless, this discrimination could have stopped at the board level, only if the BCS exam was not bent on having a syllabus that feeds off the secondary and higher secondary level texts and puts a noticeable emphasis on subjects which rarely have anything to do with the civil service.

That would include the questions on calculus, higher maths, arithmetic, biology, physics, and chemistry that are mandatory in both the preliminary MCQ exams and the written essay exams. 

So, someone who has studied in the humanities group, then studied law/international relations/peace and conflict/public administration/criminology, and then decided to go for the foreign services/administration/police sector, will have to undertake the extreme pressure of learning all those topics which have no other purpose than to secure high marks.

Obviously, someone who crammed HSC level calculus for three months won’t be a match for someone who has studied it for four years during their SSC/HSC exams. 

These people will fare better in these questions and secure higher marks in the BCS exam, even if a social science graduate has top-notch academic results and sounder knowledge of public international law, political theory, international arbitration, or human rights ;aw.

No, BCS won’t care how well they can interpret a treaty or analyze a report for the government unless they can rote memorize the sodium acetate formula or draw a meticulous diagram of the inner workings of mitochondria.

Hence, relevant disciplinal knowledge acquired at university is undervalued (if not absolutely disregarded) by the BCS system.

Levels of discrimination

This first level of discrimination affects the second level. So, with securing higher marks, the science people get the greater chances to choose the cadres. And that’s where the disaster happens.

The most lucrative and attractive cadres in the BCS are from non-scientific areas: Foreign services, administration, and police. And, ultimately, we end up with officers who have very basic knowledge of issues that are needed for sharp execution of these services.

In the 38th BCS, around 12 of 27 cadres to foreign services were reported to be doctors. In the 37th BCS exam, 14 out of 19 foreign service recruits were graduates from engineering institutes. In the 36th BCS, an English literature graduate joined the police services.

On the condition of anonymity, a 9th grade officer of X Ministry said that, in their office, which deals with issues that fall under social sciences, the ratio of science to non-science recruits is 70% to 30%.

According to that officer, recent BCS questions have been focusing a lot on advanced level maths questions, which, I quote, “puts the non-science people at a disadvantage.” Mind you, this officer had a science background in SSC/HSC, and then studied a social science subject during his undergrad. 

This complex matrix creates a loop where it is extremely difficult to place eligible people with necessary expertise in the right positions. These officers need to spend a lot of time learning matters not just practical (for which there can be no alternative to hands-on work), but also theoretical.

Although the foundation training and tailored training for different services definitely work to fill up the gap, it still begs the question: How much are we losing in terms of quality when the officers are learning substantive issues on the job, whereas a careful sorting process could have selected candidates ready for applying their knowledge to practice?

This was a major reason behind designing the separate recruitment for the Bangladesh Judicial Service, especially when relevant quarters voiced the concern that non-law graduates were deciding cases as magistrates with a mere 6 month foundational training on civil and criminal laws.

If the judiciary needed proper academic training, would other (non-technical) services be starkly different?

Even this situation could have been rectified with a timely reform to the exam conditions. Not only is BCS based on rote memory skills, but there is also little space dedicated to testing the personal aptitude and analytical skills of the candidates, something which our neighbouring country has already incorporated.

Another reform made there is the one optional paper the candidates can choose, which can often be their undergraduate discipline, giving them an appropriate scope to exhibit their merit and skills.

This is one of the major reasons behind the occasional and project-based appointment of external experts as consultants by the ministries. 

While recruiting experts is not the problem, when a ministry has to solely depend on external experts because of the lack of an in-house expert panel, it hampers optimum performance.

Public offices deal with tons of sensitive and confidential issues, which can’t always be shared with external experts. In lieu of better options, the available make-do service lacks the highest attainable standard. Even then, bureaucracy reigns.

Trump at least submitted to Fauci, and Mamata brought in Avijit. Who did our executives bring in?

No rhyme or reason

The curse of the random allocation of office that starts with marks continues with the practice of frequent transfers with little rhyme or reason.

For example, an officer who may have spent three years in the land department and acquired valuable experience and training in land registry issues can suddenly be transferred to the Department of Youth Development, where they may be charged with supervising handball tournaments.

Is that not a waste of skills and experience, not to mention state resources? These issues need to be fixed if we want a system where every peg, nut and bolt function in sync.

Unless the crumbling BCS is reformed, Bangladesh won’t have a visionary policy to meet the challenges. Covid-19 is just the beginning.

We need minds that understand what is at stake and what is the catalyst for solution. These minds can’t be found by a random distribution of offices. A malfunctioning system not only hampers the quality of service, but also reduces one’s willingness to work, and can interrupt a smooth interaction between different departments and agencies.

And when one section of the system malfunctions, the entire system collapses sooner or later. But it will always be us, the citizens, who will bear the brunt of it and suffer.

Arpeeta Shams Mizan is a sociolegal analyst. She is a Global Shaper at the WEF, and an Assistant Professor of Law, University of Dhaka.

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