Anyone who has any idea about the civil service of Bangladesh or any concern about the efficiency and effectiveness of the bureaucratic organ cannot really support the existing quota system. This concern about the impact of the quota system on the civil administration is not new and in fact, back in 2006-2007, as part of a research team that analyzed the role of the Public Service Commission, we interviewed a number of academics, ex and current bureaucrats, the BCS examinees and not one single person supported the existing quota system. What we found was simply unbelievable- one examinee whose position was 7000 in the merit list eventually got the job! Is that the civil service that we want?
It is indeed necessary to start working on the reform in the quota system. Yes, I do emphasize on the word 'reform' as I am not in favor of complete abolition. In fact, the quota system does have some value and it is an effective tool of ensuring affirmative action. Here is why -
Thus, I am for quota reservation if and only if the system fulfills any or all of the objectives mentioned above. It surprises me when people argue that the constitution does not allow quota reservation. Yes, Article 29(1) of the constitution says that-
"There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic". However, that is not all and Article 29(3) actually justifies the quota system by clearly stating- "Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from -
(a) making special provision in favor of any backward section of citizens for the purpose of securing their adequate representation in the service of the Republic;"
Therefore, the question is, who are these "backward section of citizens"? I do not agree with those who are of the opinion that women do not need quota reservation. Yes, the total number of women employed in the civil service has increased a lot but the fact is we are nowhere near in terms of achieving gender equality. For those of you, who are dead against the quota reservation for women, here is some necessary information-
According to data collected from the Public Administration Computer Center, Ministry of Public Administration, 2010 following is the distribution of BCS Cadre officers working in the decision making post-
(Source: http://thesis4u.hubpages.com/hub/Civil-service-system-in-Bangladesh-A-statistical-sketch; This person has used the data of the Public Administration Computer Center, 2010)
Furthermore, according to the government report, as of 2013, "3 women are posted as Secretaries,15 as Additional Secretaries and 68 as Joint Secretaries to the Government" (Source: http://www.mof.gov.bd/en/budget/13_14/gender_budget/en/08%20Chapter%2009_07_Public%20Administration_English.pdf). Needless to say, we are nowhere near ins shattering the glass ceilings and there no point in modifying the quota reserved for women. At the same time, still need quota for the indigenous people and for the disabled.
Now, what about the other quotas? I do not think that we need the district quota and in fact, my experience suggests that district quota has actually become "divisional quota". We are not promoting any backward group of citizens through this. Now, what about the offspring of the freedom fighters? Honestly speaking, 30% is too big a number and if abolishing this quota becomes difficult, efforts should be taken to phase this out. The big question here is- can this particular quota be considered as an "affirmative action"? How? I have the deepest respect for our freedom fighters and I do think that introduction of this quota after the independence was necessary. However, this should have been and should be phased out eventually. At the same time, in case of this particular quota, we need to an important piece of information. The PSC has always been critical of the quota policy and they had tried to change this for many years. There was a time, when the policy was- if the posts reserved for the freedom fighters (or their sons/daughters) were not filled up, these were left vacant. It took the PSC almost 10 years to change that and finally in 1997, PSC got what we wanted- provision was made that if the posts remained vacant (that is these cannot be filled up through the quota), the merit list will be followed. It continued and when you see the figure which shows that in last few years, recruitment from merit list reached to almost 70%, that is probably right (cannot confirm that as I have not myself checked the PSC report and have learned not to believe facebook). Here is the twist- in 2010, the GoB took a decision which makes no sense- the quota policy was reversed and it was decided that if the 30% quota reserved for freedom fighter's offspring cannot be filled up, these would remain vacant. This decision of the Government was enacted on February 16, 2010 and the Ministry of Public Administration decided to enact the following rule-
Does it make any sense? This particular decision is the reason behind this anti-quota movement and I do not really blame the PSC for taking the decision that quota reservation should be applied from the very beginning. My guess is, the institution knows that this change in rule will make its job extremely difficult at the later stage and a number of seats will remain vacant. In my opinion, the PSC takes this decision in "good faith" to avoid the problem that will surely emerge when it prepare the final list and send it to the ministry.
Therefore, quota reservation policy should be amended and this amendment is indeed necessary. However, given that we are talking about the civil service and we are (finally! much to the relief of those who are concerned about the civil service) emphasizing on the necessity of a merit-based recruitment system, we should consider some other relevant issues. And honestly speaking, I am frustrated that no one is really talking about these.
Before moving into that discussion, let us try to understand why the merit-based recruitment is so essential in the civil service. Like it or not, public sector is still relevant in the development process of the country and in fact, it probably plays the most important role. At the same time, unlike most other developed countries, people of Bangladesh do not reflect an anti-public sector attitude rather they rely on it and want it not to be replaced by the non-profit or private sector but to be more effective and efficient. Whereas there is a tendency among the development organizations to give all the credits of achieving significant success in reaching the goals specified in the MDGs to the NGOs, there is little empirical evidence to support their claims. Instead, what we often forget is the fact that government programs and initiatives have played the most important role for the development that we have made in the education, child nutrition, maternal health, sanitation and relevant other sectors. Thus, it is important to recognize the role played by the public sector agencies in realizing our development goals. I understand that bashing the bureaucracy has always been our favorite pastime, this rhetoric bashing of the bureaucracy is not helpful rather it significantly demoralizes the institution.
However, we should also consider the fact that as the administrative arena is becoming more complicated and as the demand placed on it by the citizens is increasing, the bureaucracy is finding it difficult to be more responsive to their needs. For instance, the focus on the public-private partnership or the emphasis on including the NGOs in the implementation process is making it necessary for the bureaucracy to "un-learn" its old lessons and learn some new theories and approaches (e.g. network governance). This necessity is not only felt at the domestic policy arena. The bureaucrats have to negotiate with the development partners and in case of international diplomacy, the expertise of this organ is even more relevant. The problem is, our bureaucracy is still not up to the task. There are still many brilliant officials in the civil service and I did have the opportunity of meeting a few of them. However, we need more and we need it quickly to address these new challenges. And here is the problem- the entire recruitment system is faulty and right now it is not really attracting the meritorious students. I can share few anecdotal evidences to show how this is hurting the country. But for now, let me just jump to the conclusion- our bureaucracy lacks the ability to negotiate with development partners and with other countries and is not well-equipped in meeting the new challenges of governing. We are witnessing a shift in governing- from government to governance and our bureaucracy is not ready to make this transition effectively. Whereas lack of political commitment is a strong determinant factor in explaining our failures in achieving good results in the arenas of domestic and international politics, we have to admit a part of this failure also lies with our bureaucracy.
Needless to say, the quota system as it stands creates a barrier for the meritorious students to join the civil service. But is that everything? The way few students and some columnists are portraying, it looks like if we can get rid of the quota system, we will be able to ensure a merit-based recruitment and the candidates who will enter the civil service will be expert, skilled and "meritorious" in true sense. How true is this claim? I want to reiterate that quota system is indeed problematic but if we limit our discussion to only that aspect, we are ignoring the major problems which should be addressed or at least pointed out.
Here is the thing- the entire recruitment exam system is still problematic. I guess everyone has some idea about the exam system and thus I am not repeating that (those who are interested can look it up, a simple Google search should suffice). From the late-80s, the academics of the country have been pointing out the limitation of the exam system and here is just an example- according to a 1988 study, the BCS exam system attracts only the "impetuous" and "shallow-knowledged" student. Even though the PSC has made some changes since then, they are clearly not enough. If you do not agree, I kindly request you to look at the questions of the preliminary examinations or the written examination. Once you have done that, just try to answer the question- how would the students who got the public service jobs by answering these questions be able to tackle major administrative and policy problems or dilemmas? The things is, even though there is some exception (for instance, persons who are willing to join the technical or functional cadres have to follow a somewhat different procedure), our civil service examination follows a generalist pattern which was probably adequate in the past but is no longer appropriate. Given that the administrative jobs are becoming complex, demanding and technical, we need specialization and therefore, we need people in the civil service who will be able to focus on specific specialized areas. Here is what I propose-
a. First, why don't we let the ministries and/or public agencies decide what type of specialized skills they need to perform their designated roles? Let them decide on the necessary criteria for performing their jobs and the candidates who meet these criteria will apply.
b. Second, the PSC will evaluate the criteria set and will propose certain modifications if necessary
c. Third, the exam can be held by the public agencies, or by the PSC or can be delegated to outside bodies. However, if we decide to let the agencies hold the examination or depend on outside actors, question may arise about the fairness of the examination. In this case, the PSC will assume a new role, i.e. it will oversee the examination system and evaluate the fairness. In essence, PSC will assume the role of a Merit Protection Board.
d. Fourth, a valid question is- will this proposed system create a barrier for most of the graduates in taking part in the BCS exam? In my opinion, this question should be addressed while taking under consideration our necessity, i.e. we have to decide- do we need specialized services in managing the administration? Given that there are some set criteria for functional and technical cadres, do we need to devise some different sets for other cadre services? As I have argued earlier, the time for specialization has arrived and we need to respond to this call for the sake of better management of our administrative services. At the same time, I highly doubt that specialization will disallow the participation for majority of the students and in fact, in a number of cadre services, most of the graduate students will be able to apply. However, I do think that the time has come to understand that to better manage the administration, you need to understand the basic sciences of administration; in order to deal with public safety, you need to have some basic knowledge about criminology or criminal justice system...so yes, for some specific cadre services, specialization is necessary. And if we agree with the idea that neutral expertise is necessary, if we agree that administration should be administered by the very best for the sake of the country, we should take these issues under consideration.
e. Fifth, in order to provide specialized education necessary for recruitment in some certain services, the public and private universities can play a huge role. In fact, these universities can offer post-graduate degrees on these specialized subjects and the candidates interested in joining these specific services can go to these universities. I know that most of the private universities do not offer degrees in these areas, but the thing is if demand is created, they will definitely respond accordingly.
Yes, I am strongly in favor of the reformation of the quota system but what frustrates me is the idea propagated by many that once we get rid of the quota, we will be able to achieve an effective and efficient administration which will be responsive to the need of the citizens. That is simply not correct. It is not only the quota system that hinders the admission of the best of the best in the civil service, our faulty recruitment procedure is also liable for the current situation and we need to address that.
Let us not forget the fact that public administration is a practical field and if we cannot evaluate or judge the ability of the candidates (at the entry-level) in dealing with political and administrative problems in a democratic state, we will never be able to achieve the desired level of efficiency in the civil service. In a pure administrative sense, merit does not depend on memorizing some specific answers, it depends on the ability of the administrators to deal with practical problems. Learning or memorizing some dates or events will only encourage them in memorizing the rules and push them to blindly follow these rules without considering the context or the need of the people, but they will never be able to work for ensuring social equity, they will never succeed in speaking truth to power- a major responsibility of the bureaucracy in a democracy. Thus, whereas it is necessary that we deal with problems created through the quota system, it is also necessary to look at the other problems and address them. It may be and can be argued that the suggestions that I am proposing are impractical but we need to start this discussion. We are already paying the price and let's do something before it is too late. To me, just focusing on the quota while keeping silent about the problems related with the exam system is just an attempt of maintaining the status-quo- the very thing that the anti-quota activists are so dead against. They are just fighting in favor of a different status-quo.