The Urgent Need for Innovation in India’s Public-Sector Appointments Process

A public sector job is one of the most prized forms of employment in India, for a variety of reasons including prestige, attractive entry-level pay, a multitude of employment benefits, and unparalleled job security. The selection process is governed by a constitutionally-mandated scheme involving competitive examinations, and the competition for places is maddeningly intense, with millions of aspirants vying for a handful of vacancies; many candidates spend years “waiting” to clear the exam. The competitive examination system for public service appointments dates back to a 19th-century effort by the British Imperial Civil Service to crack down on corruption and patronage; after independence, India choses to retain this selection method, for similar anticorruption reasons. But it hasn’t worked: despite “merit-based” appointments, the Indian public service has remained plagued with corruption and bribery—and all too often, as in the recent  multi-billion-dollar scams that hit Indian public-sector banks, public officials are at the heart of criminal conspiracies.

Common explanations for the persistence of corruption in the Indian civil service are the relatively low pay of government jobs (notwithstanding the benefits and perks), as well as the excessive size of India’s public sector overall. Both points are valid, but we also need to consider problems with the selection process itself. Worryingly, research has suggested that the Indian public sector attracts corrupt candidates (see here and here), which contributes to the persistence of a culture of corruption in the civil service. Two reforms to the current selection system could potentially help reduce this problem:

  • First, the competitive examination and interview process should be supplemented with an ethical screening component. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of government sector jobs in India do not have any such screening involved. For the premier federal services, some ethics-based testing is being conducted since 2012, but in a manner that leaves much to be desired: on the written exam, applicants are asked one question on general knowledge of ethics codes in the OECD, and given one problem-based question that is sometimes, but not always, based on scenarios from public-service employment. Having more rigorous ethics-based screening is not a novel idea and has been integrated by the Indonesian KPK for years now to great acclaim. India, too, should incorporate a more serious ethics component into its selection process.
  • Second, the entire selection process should be made more transparent at every level, to help reinforce the perception that exams promote a meritocracy. The Supreme Court took a step in this direction by calling for video-taping the entire selection process in order to curb cheating in exam centers and nepotism in interviews, but there’s more than can be done. For example, after the exams are over, students should be provided with access to their answer-scripts and model answer keys. Since examinations involve subjective, essay-type questions to various segments, such a measure would help gauge whether assessments were consistent or arbitrary. In the longer term, the government should shift the process to a more secure and more transparent digital platform, a move that’s already being tested with smaller exams.

The merit-based appointments for public sector appointments in India has a storied history. But such a system, like any other, must need constant re-appraisal and reform to ensure it functions optimally and remains insulated from corruption. Nobody can assert that all those engaged in the Indian public sector are corrupt. But there are quite a few rotten apples, and these reforms to the selection process could hopefully further prune that crop.

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