Home / Opinion / Views /  Our civil service recruitment resembles a lemon market
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In 1970, George Akerlof wrote his famous paper on a market for lemons, for which he got a Nobel Prize in Economics. This was a strong intuition about a used car market under asymmetric information; here, sellers know the defects of their vehicles, while the buyers don’t. Sellers of the worst cars are the keenest to sell, while buyers fear they will get ‘lemons’ (bad cars). Suspicion drives down the prices of all cars, and so good cars stay out of the market. This is a case of low-quality cars driving out good quality, which is an adverse market outcome.

For long, India’s civil services were hailed as our steel-frame. At recruitment point, the system picked up the best. It’s another matter that merit-selected candidates suffered degradation thereafter. Yet, recruiting officers for the civil services was not a problem and their training was designed to prepare horses for courses. Recent developments, unfortunately, are turning it into market for lemons.

Recently, I was invited to interview candidates for the top civil services in a state. A few things surprised me no end. First, candidates are of much older than earlier. With an increasing age gap, ostensibly in the name of helping rural candidates and disadvantaged groups, we have entered a trap where any training and reorientation will be a challenge. Second, candidates spend too much time preparing for the entrance exam, up to 10-12 years in some cases. This can sap the energy of anyone in what should be a highly productive period of one’s life. Such aspirants are often bereft of real-world work experience. If they hide information on the work they have been doing, it is analogous to used cars. If they were single-mindedly busy with exam preparation, then they must have lost many valuable experiences. Three chances to crack the exam should be enough, but we have aspirants who have availed more than half a dozen chances. This is unfair to fresh examinees and provides us no clear advantage.

Everyone is existentially and psychologically responsible for one’s work life. A person who joins the service late has only 18-20 years of work. A short career span could alter a candidate’s priorities in a venal system to our collective disadvantage. No wonder that we increasingly hear of shameful high handedness and egregious behaviour displayed by many recruits.

The recruitment system is being dumbed down. The political economy was anyway uncomfortable with an independent, conscientious and rule-bound bureaucracy. Vested interests wanted horses for courses in a system friendly to them. Checks and balances were seen as irksome and corruption was the least of their concerns. Real-world players knew it was more effective to change the game itself than its rules. They wanted standards lowered, done by constantly reworking the exam syllabus to reduce optional papers and remove items apparently difficult for rural and indigent students. The intellectual sharpness needed to attain a modicum of proficiency in diverse subjects was lost. This served as a way to game the system. The preliminary exam, a screening test to pick a pool of candidates, has become so unpredictable that a large proportion of high-quality candidates do not pass muster. A common complaint is that many questions are not very relevant. The next stage is more subjective; it asks for essays on fundamental questions. Resultantly, a poorly written essay can outscore a good one with a little help. In the final stage, expert invitees could have known ideological predilections. This makes pre-selection a possibility in a system where generously awarded marks can tilt the scale.

I was once invited to be an advisor to a coaching centre. I went and met its students. Thirty years ago, these candidates would not have dared to commit their time and effort to this exam. Inadequate preparation for an intensely competitive exam would have been pointless. But they seem to know the system well now and appear confident of their chances, even though they have not invested enough in their studies.

I am not talking about the disadvantage of having studied in a vernacular medium. Attending a poor quality English medium school is worse than going to a good quality vernacular school. It is also not about reservations, which many point an accusatory finger at. Some of the most efficient and compassionate officers I have come across were from reserved categories. But the expansion of reservations beyond a certain level could have created a problem.

What are the country’s best prepared students doing? Most appear to have opted out of the system. Thus, as in Akerlof’s market for lemons, not-so-good quality has driven out much better quality, as the recruitment market does not value the latter. Their opting out is as much because of other career options being available as an attempt to avoid the unpredictability of a gamed system.

Real-world special interests can celebrate their success in bringing Gresham’s Law to bear on one of our most stodgy sectors that once always attracted the best. It is possible that many candidates are pre-chosen for ideological conformity, underprepared enough to be controlled and ethically feeble enough to consign to paper what is directed without any pangs of conscience. No wonder we see chinks galore in our administrative capacity.

The outcome desired by powerful forces appears set to materialize. Finally, politicians may have succeeded in getting their yes-men in while no one was watching. I hope rumours of convolution in recruitment are not true, but the worry of a downward spiral is real.

These are the author’s personal views.

Satya Mohanty is former secretary to the Government of India

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