“One of the easiest to write, but the most difficult to prepare”: UPSC AIR 17 Sarthak Agrawal on ethical paper
Abhimanyu Gahlaut wrote in 2015 that the ethics document does not need much formal preparation. I think his advice remains fresh. I did not refer to any dense philosophy books or ethics coaching material, but still managed to get a respectable 131. Unfortunately, GS4 – the most popular book on this topic – that I did. bought but couldn’t study for more than 20 minutes, is a drag.
Before the preparation phase, I had thought long and hard about whether I really wanted to become a bureaucrat. I have also had several conversations with IAS officers to better understand this area. Looking back, these conversations helped me understand public administration from a more practical perspective, which I tried to express in my responses as well.
The bottom line here is that before jumping into the fray, it’s probably wise to spend some time getting to know the landscape. This not only helps you make a more informed decision, but can also help you with the ethics document.
To get started, I researched the key terms mentioned in the program and read everything I found online. I performed five to six mock tests for this article, and in the two that I was externally assessed, I was ranked in the bottom half of all applicants. This is your reminder to take mock test results with a pinch of salt. For those interested, I have provided links to all of my rated response scripts on my blog (https://agrawalsarthak.wordpress.com).
I thought this article was more practical than philosophical, so I tried to drop a lot of real world examples in my answers. These came from various facts, but also from places like The best India which feature stories about the significant impact created by public servants. The imprintThe coverage of bureaucratic developments is also top notch. For all of the terms mentioned in the program, I have noted instances where officials and public actors have demonstrated exemplary behavior – and others where they have done the opposite.
On topics like leadership and emotional intelligence, I scanned a few Harvard business review articles. I have also read briefs written by officials. Anil Swarup’s Ethical dilemmas of a public servant has a rich collection of ethical puzzles with which the author has been confronted during his career; I even remember quoting events from his book directly in some of the responses. TR Raghunandan’s last book was also very useful, the last chapter on “Ethics in IAS” being a must read. A recent addition to this list is the fantastic book by Parameswaran Iyer, Method in madness. Finally, I highly recommend browsing the publications of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara, which I have referred to quite often.
Closer to the review, I also went through several “top notch response scripts” and wrote down what I liked and didn’t like about each one. For example, I borrowed the “stakeholder diagrams” that many applicants had used in the past because I found them concise and visually appealing. However, I kept wondering what I could do to add this extra benefit to my answers. In the end, I was content to provide contemporary examples from various fields and cite examples from public servants’ submissions whenever relevant.
In the case studies, I have always tried to explain the reasons why I choose a certain course of action. Carefully dividing my suggestions into short and long term strategies has also been helpful. However, I struggled to manage my time until my exam, in part because there was so much to write about. Also, going through some of the longer case studies in the article, I didn’t read every word, but only tried to get the gist of it. It was a risky strategy which is best avoided as certain crucial nuances may escape a reader in a hurry.
Finally, I would suggest not to use preconceived ideas in the ethics document. It is one of the easiest papers to write, but the most difficult to prepare. Thinking too much is a sure way to land yourself in a quagmire. Instead, if one spends a lot of time thinking deeply about the ethical issues facing public officials in India and developing an independent and innovative perspective on them, they should be doing well.
(The author is AIR 17 in UPSC Civil Services 2020 and is a researcher at the World Bank)