Senior Assistants

A year or two before I was born, my parents both took and passed this exam called “SAS” (no clue what it stands for), following which they were both promoted to officer grade (they used to work for the erstwhile Karnataka Electricity Board (KEB) back then).

Many of their colleagues elected to not take up this exam (or perhaps took and flunked it) and didn’t get promoted for the rest of their careers, remaining “senior assistants”. While they didn’t “progress” in their careers, they didn’t do all that badly financially, with their pay scale growing more or less at the same rate as it would have had they become officers.

This examination-based division into officers and “staff” was not limited to KEB, of course. It was (and is) prevalent across all public sector units. If you passed the exam, you had a chance at career progression, though that also typically meant harder work and longer hours. It wasn’t necessary for everyone to be ambitious, though, since they could choose to remain at a non-officer grade where things were chiller.

While there might have been noble intentions for this bifurcation (making the pyramid thin at a low enough level, for example, and also addressing lumpy/bursty recruitment), the problem with the practice was that it created a rather large cadre of rather unambitious workers.

Given that it is not easy to sack someone from a PSU job (unless there has been gross misbehaviour), the only way to incentivise PSU employees to work is by showing them carrots. While tenure or seniority based promotions have put paid to such incentives, it is still reason enough to keep a section of the officers motivated. For Senior Assistants who have hit a wall on that front, it is simply not available.

Given the shape of the pyramid and the lack of carrots for Senior Assistants (and equivalent) what this policy has created is a large army of government/PSU officials who lack any motivation or incentive to do their job effectively.

With most government departments being monopolies, this is a problem only for the taxpayers and public (and not so much for the departments themselves). Where this hits PSUs hardest is where they compete with the private sectors, in banks, for example.

I’ve maintained that one of the advantages of PSU banks is that the staff there are much more experienced, so if you have a non-standard thing to do, you would rather go there than to a private bank that might throw the rule book at you.

The problem, though, is that while some staff might be motivated enough to use their experience and help you out, not all of them might be that way, for most of the clerical staff belong to the aforementioned “Senior Assistant” category, with no explicit incentive to keep them going. The same is the case with non-customer facing staff as well.

I understand that various other careers can also have “career-limiting moves” (after which you don’t get promoted) but the problem with the Indian PSU system is that such moves happen pretty early on in the career, which creates a lot of deadweight for the system to carry.

The Peer Pressure of Finishing An Exam Early

Today is the final exam of my course at IIMB. It’s a two part exam – students have been given the problems today and they have to describe on paper how they are going to approach the problem. Tomorrow I’ll send them relevant data and then they need to build an Excel model and solve the problem.

The point of this blog post, however, is to do with the peer pressure of finishing an exam early. Today’s exam is taking place in two rooms, with the students having been divided equally between the rooms. I’m writing this two and a half hours into a four hour exam, and so far about a dozen students have handed in their papers. The interesting thing is that eleven of these are from one room, and one from the other.

This makes me wonder if there is some kind of “peer pressure” in terms of finishing an exam. When you hand in your paper early, you signal one of two things – either that you have really aced the exam or that you really have no clue. By looking at the people who have walked out so far and their academic reputations, it is possible for the remaining students to know whether the people who have left have aced the exam or given up.

So the question is if there is some kind of gamesmanship involved in finishing an exam early. Let’s say a stud walks out of a 4-hour exam in an hour. Does he walk out early in part to let his peers know that it was a bloody easy exam and that they should be doing better than they already are? And does this in part put pressure on the other studs to “preserve their reputations” in some manner by also finishing early? And does this imply that they might hurry up and not do a good enough job of the exam, leading to suboptimal performance and better grades (let’s assume a relative grading system) for the person who originally walked out?

Or do you think walkouts are independent? That two students walking out i close succession to each other were independent events that I’m reading into too much? I wish I had actually tabulated the timings at which papers had been handed in, and maybe perhaps correlated them with the actual performance in an exam (to analyse how early finishing affects performance). As it stands, though,I should work on the data available.

I’m writing this blog post siting in room 1 (posting later since Wi-Fi has been switched off here for purpose of the exam). After I started writing, one of the studs sitting in room 1 walked out. Almost in quick succession one other stud in this room followed him. This is the room where one guy had walked out really early, and he’s also one of the studs of the class.

This suggests that there is some kind of correlation. A sort of relationship. That one person walking out puts pressure on others to also walk out. And can result in some good “relative grading”!

I’ll end with an anecdote from my days as a student here, almost exactly 9 years back. It was an objective final exam, with multiple choice questions only. And in that series of exams it had been some sort of a competition as to who would walk out early.

So it was the last exam, and this one guy decided to “show off” by walking out within five minutes. Unfortunately one other guy had decided to turn up late for the exam. The institute rules state that nobody is allowed into an exam after at least one student has walked out. So the second guy was not allowed to take the exam.

As it turned out, he got a better grade than the guy who had walked out within five minutes!