Friday, 14 March 2008

And now, for something completely different

The Economist has an interesting article on the bureaucracy in India. To quote:

Yet the steel frame has now become a serious bind on badly needed reforms. As the author of a typical recent IAS history and former mandarin, Sanjoy Bagchi, puts it: “Overwhelmed by the constant feed of adulatory ambrosia, the maturing entrant tends to lose his head and balance. The diffident youngster of early idealistic years, in course of time, is transformed into an arrogant senior fond of throwing his weight around; he becomes a conceited prig.”

The article goes on to list the many things that ail the bureaucracy, from within and without. (Admittedly, there have been other articles about it in Indian publications, but being a true Indian, I chose to quote the phirangs on this.)

One thing that I have found surprising about calls for reform in the bureaucracy is that hardly anyone talks about overhauling the selection process, specifically, the UPSC examinations and the whole process that follows after that. It's a long, sapping and inefficient system for identifying future civil servants.

No-one realistically claims that being able to mug up facts on Geology or Chemistry is a good indicator of a candidate's potential as an administrator. The only justification is to think of it as a combination of Spence's job market signalling model, (go read it up on Wikipedia, I'm too lazy to describe it here) and a socialistic urge to provide a supposedly level playing field to, in some way, compare people from different backgrounds and disciplines. The latter urge, however, is also its failing. Since marks in any of the optional subject papers are considered equivalent, rational candidates would opt for papers which are easier to clear. Subjects where the answers are fairly unambiguous and easy to mug up would be favoured over subjects where there is room for interpretation and subjectivity. As anecdotal evidence, I can point to a senior of mine from college who attempted the exams twice with History as his optional paper, then decided that Public Administration was easier because there were fewer textbooks (I believe there are IAS tutorials in Delhi that specialize in teaching you Pub Ad, which charge fees in the lakhs, and people have to queue up at 6 in the morning on enrolment day). In the past, those with 'potential' may have been willing to make that sacrifice; now most would be able to find more worthwhile options. Spence's signalling equilibrium no longer applies, because the better candidates can choose to exit the 'system'. Instead, we end up mostly with a bunch of people who cynically chose to spend at least a year of their lives mugging up stuff about a subject they didn't care about, only to pass an examination. Why should we be surprised if that cynicism carries over to when they make it to the services, and look for ways to get the maximum return on that initial investment?

Then there are those who fail to get past the exams. The UPSC website claims that over 150,000 people wrote the Preliminary Civil Service examination in 2002, of which finally 286 were finally recommended (for recruitment, I presume; the site is ambiguous on that). One wonders what happens to the rest. Even assuming that many will make multiple attempts and will try to get into at least the state services, it is fair to say that a majority will not get a government job at the end of the exercise. Which leaves them with having given up a lot of their (and their families') time and money (all those classes and subscriptions to the Hindu and Frontline) to end up with limited job skills and an abiding cynicism.

Having said all that, the obvious question is -what is the alternative? I would suggest the government seriously consider recruiting some officers directly from the better post-graduate institutes (TISS, JNU, DSE, IGIDR, ISI etc) and perhaps the second-rung B-schools, bypassing the Civil Service Examination system entirely (perhaps administering a basic reasoning skills test and going on to interviews). With salaries set to go up for central government employees, they should be somewhat comparable to the compensation packages offered on campus, and the sense of power, experience and perks that the government can provide are pretty much unmatchable by industry. Considering that the students at these institutes would, for the most part, have actually made it to the PG course as a result of their own innate abilities rather than merely beating the system, Spence's signalling equilibrium once again becomes relevant. Further, they are more likely to have been encouraged to use their analytical skills and have a wider level of exposure to different perspectives. Such a system would reduce the opportunity cost involved in getting into (and also improve opportunities to get out of) the civil services, thus making it more attractive to people who are not entirely sure if it is the job they would like to do for the rest of their lives.

One could argue that it is in some way less fair than having one equalizing examination, but the aim of the recruitment process is finally to get the people most likely to provide cometent administration, not to dole out jobs to people best able to game the system.


What do you think? Does anyone who reads this blog think about it at all? The last few posts have generated a lot of comments (by my standards), so I'd like to see how this one does. I'm pretty sick of writing in rhyme, for the moment.


  1. Hmm. I think that all systems can be "gamed". Look at the IITs. For the most part, their prestige rests on the achievements of a handful of 1970s alumni, and the students' maths skills, which are drilled into them by the "gaming".

    Picking graduates from universities sounds good in principle, but on what basis are the graduates assessed? Given the great numbers of applicants, what numerical filtering can be done when the measures an incommensurate?

    Standardized testing is essential. You see it in the US too, although grades also count. India's main problem is a sheer lack of opportunity -- we have a vast population and far too many underemployed educated youth. We can only hope for a diversification in the job market -- I would be really happy to hear about middle class people making a living as therapists, artists, designers, interior decorators and such. There's a lot of talent being dumped aimlessly into technology and management.

    Meanwhile, as the prestige associated with government jobs sinks, some people who might be really good bureaucrats no longer feel motivated to even try to game the system.

    Those are my meandering thoughts. But socio-economic thought is depressing and I don't see any miracles happening.

  2. Good points.
    Yes, most systems can be gamed. That's the whole point really - if you predicate admission mainly on a single examination, that sort of a system is easier to beat than one which would look at consistent performance over time. [I personally feel that part of the reason why IITian techies are so prized is because they are good at figuring out how systems work and then finding loopholes in them that could be exploited. That's a good skill to have]

    B)Standardized testing may be useful for educational institutions. I'm talking about finding people for a set of jobs. If the private sector had set up a recruitment process which involved picking up its management cadre on the basis of a year-long process of examinations in subjects that may or may not be relevant, it would be considered extremely inefficient. While some may administer a basic aptitude test, in-depth testing would be used only for functional roles which require in-depth knowledge, like say actuarial sciences, or for low-skilled blue collar jobs where you only require the candidate to show a basic level of intelligence. Why should the government be any different?

    The filtering that you mentioned is the point of Spence's model - the better candidates signal their aptitude through their abilities to get into the better institutes and compete there.

    I personally feel that the private sector in India could do more to look at places other than the B-schools and the IITs to recruit from. The reason why people opt for engineering or management is because they feel that's more likely to get them a job. If you knew that after doing a Masters in Literature the set of jobs available to you are wider than just teaching or journalism or something, you would be more willing to take it up. Knowing that a government job is also available would further alleviate that risk of being unemployed after a Master's.

    Thanks for commenting - thought this might be a bit too long and boring for most people to bother reading :-)

  3. Hehe. This sort of topic (or any serious one) is hard to comment on coherently. (Watch as I decide to drop a post on semiotics sometime.) One must balance between talking about what one likes, and alienating the reader. A blog is such an odd medium.

    Your points are sound. However, the burden of ranking institutions must be done by some external agency. It's like the buck is passed from raking the candidates to ranking the institutes. And that kind of thing is quite controversial.

    Decentralization might help here. Perhaps each government agency can come up with its own set of criteria -- partially based on a national exam, and partially on experience, interviews and education.

  4. How about a combined management and government exam?

    I mean, as far as I have seen it, government jobs are more about management than anything else.

    It doesn't make sense to study history or economics or whatever to get a government job; if the aim is to attract people from diverse places, then a common test (as a first cut) is more sensible.

    I feel in addition to having at least an undergrad degree, all candidates should be required to have a minimum of 2 years of work experience; because given the pecularity of a job in government, which requires one to "do", working will provide at least some rudimentary lessons on ummm life or some such thing...

    Of course there is the point that goes as follows - where will people who have an undergrad degree get a job? Maybe they can be made apprentices or something in government (this needn't be full time)...then the final decision can be made based on (a) how the candidate worked; and (b) how he/she did on a test. Further removal can occur in interviews.

    But, then where will the money for this horde of young people come from?

    Anyway those were my thoughts.

    And I dunno how to take out word verification.

  5. In re common tests: they make some sense if you're checking for bacis skills. Otherwise, they're pretty popintless as a measure of a person's ability to deal with other people or anything else like that.
    The work experience criterion would be pretty strict. As you said, it would be tough to get work that would prepare you for a job in government. Internship in government may not be a bad idea, although there would have to be relevant work for them, otherwise it's just a subsidy for disguised unemployment.

    I don't think my approach is perfect either, but I think it's time the UPSC started looking at overhauling the process.

    I first came up with this argument in a discussion with my dad in Jan. It was partly to divert the conversation from whether I would ever consider writing the civils.

    Again, thanks for commenting :-)
    And you can turn of word verification in your blog settings.