Selection matters (on selection process in different departments)-DAWN

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THERE would not be much point of selecting even a brilliant hockey player to play Test match cricket and vice versa. For almost any position or role one can think of, selection does matter. Getting the right person for the job is important. It is important to ensure potential for optimal performance and it is important for considerations of justice and fairness as well.

Even a brilliant hockey player is unlikely to do well in Test cricket. And if playing well and winning are aims for Test cricket, we should be ‘selecting’ the right people to play for our team. Similarly, if the process is not fair and transparent, we will not get the right people. As importantly, even if we select the right players, but the process is not fair and transparent, the perception will not be right. And in public spaces perception is sometimes even more important than the reality.

So, selection matters, and selection has to ensure we get the right person for the job and the processes of selection have to be fair and transparent so that people can be confident that we are getting the right people and through a fair procedure.

Setting up all of the above is not a trivial task. Since selection matters in getting the right person for each job, we need to know the characteristics that make a person right for a job.

Recently, this has been debated in the context of appointments to the Supreme Court of the country. Should seniority of the judge, at the high court level, be enough of a selection criterion for appointment to the SC? If we say yes, we are — implicitly at least — saying that seniority ensures that each judge who is senior enough to be elevated has all the other characteristics that we want in our SC judges. It means that we did the right selection at the high court level and that these judges have continued to build on those characteristics and so the seniority order is enough to determine elevation. If not, then seniority alone is a poor criterion.

The same determination has to be made for all jobs. Bureaucracy also uses the seniority criterion a lot. Again, the same issue. For every post, or type of post or job, we have to find the right criterion by which we should judge the suitability of a person.

The big issue with selection is finding the right criteria for selection. Even if available, the characteristics that you look for might not be amenable to easy identification or might not be measurable through ‘objectively’ available data. How do you judge whether or not someone will be a ‘good’ teacher? Literature on teachers suggests that most visible markers (prior education, performance on content-related tests) are not effective ways of selecting teachers. It requires deeper probing of personality and motivation questions. But, and here is the catch, deeper probing can only be done through qualitative ways (interviewing, personality tests, demonstration classes).

For Pakistan, at least, this sets up a difficult dynamic. If we move to qualitative and non-objective measures of selection it makes the selection process less transparent. And since we live in an environment where corruption and nepotism levels are and have been high, lack of transparency is taken as a way of opening the door to corruption and/or nepotism.

In Pakistan, we have to stick to ‘objective’ measures. This implies that in many places we cannot select good candidates; we can only select candidates who perform well on variables that are objectively verifiable even if they have nothing to do with the ability to do the job we are selecting the candidate for.

Take the case of teacher selection. There used to be a lot more weight attached to interviews for teacher selection in the past. Concurrently, there used to be a strong perception, and rightly so, that teachers were hired on the basis of corruption or nepotism. There was a lot of litigation on the issue too. Provincial governments, across Pakistan, decided to change the process. They reduced the dependence on interviews and other tests and increased the weight of a) academic performance, and b) performance on standardised tests (NTS in this case). So, the process was made more ‘objective’ and ‘transparent’ but, according to evidence related to the selection of teachers from all over, it does not select good teachers. It takes on those who do well on tests. Transparency has, in this case, come at the cost of, potentially, doing better selection. Which method was better? One advantage of the current system is that it is transparent and perceived to be ‘fair’, hence litigation in teacher hiring has gone down. But, despite improvement in the sense of reducing corruption and/or nepotism, it does not do a good job when it comes to selection.

Ideally, we should have more nuanced means of testing but these should remain transparent and should not be open to corruption and/or nepotism. However, it seems that in Pakistan, at least for now, we are not in a position to undertake such system design. Even universities, for fear of charges of corruption, tend to narrow down entry requirements to performance in Matriculation/ FSc or equivalent examinations and other standardised tests. They shy away from looking at other important dimensions of personality (extracurricular, sports, community service) adequately.

Selection matters. But selection requires setting up selection processes along the right variables and then making them transparent. In most places in Pakistan, from the appointment of judges, the promotion of bureaucrats to the selection of teachers and students, we are doing a poor job of selecting optimally and setting up good processes. If we want to move to a fairer, merit-based society, we will have to, more or less completely, overhaul our selection systems.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.