• IASbaba
  • September 10, 2015
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Must ReadComprehensive Strategy for Ethics                                            PART I



Detailed Strategy for tackling case studies:

When UPSC came out with the new Mains syllabus in 2013, perhaps the most searched phrase on google was ‘how to solve case studies?’ Two years and equal number of mains have passed and the search still continues. Even the experts of Rajinder Nagar could not decode the riddle of case studies. The toppers recommend so many ways to approach the case studies that the poor aspirants got even more confused. Perhaps this is the beauty of this examination. No one really knows what UPSC has in mind.


We have seen people getting very high marks in other papers while flunking badly in the Ethics paper and also the other way round! How is that even possible? Frankly speaking, even we don’t know the answer.

So, is there no hope? Are you supposed to follow some random techniques from varied sources and then hope for your luck to favour you?

No. Not exactly. We know one thing for sure- people don’t invest the requisite time and effort in this paper. The syllabus seems so familiar and generic in nature that almost everyone feels that he/she can manage the paper without much difficulty. Even the actual paper appears a cakewalk to most of the aspirants. But when the results come, people get disappointed or rather frustrated with their marks. We at IAS Baba are committed to help you overcome these problems.

We have already provided a detailed strategy for Paper IV. Here, we present a more focused strategy to tackle case studies that are asked in GS paper IV.


Some brief facts about the case studies asked by UPSC:


  1. A case study is a description of an actual administrative situation involving a decision to be made or a problem to be solved.
  1. The case studies asked by UPSC are unique in the sense that they are meant to check the attributes that are expected from a civil servant. They are not like the typical management case studies where various data and market surveys are analysed to reach a solution/ recommendation.
  1. While there is no one definitive approach to tackle a case, there are common steps that most approaches recommend to be followed in tackling a case study.
  1. Usually, the cases are only for those topics that are mentioned in the syllabus. All the cases revolve around some key concepts either directly or in an implicit way. It is therefore important to remember each and every word of the syllabus.
  1. It is easier said than done to follow a balanced approach. In real life situations, civil servants adopt the most relevant, lawful and viable alternative.
  1. Not all case studies are the same. Different case studies are asked to check different sets of qualities. Each case is unique in its own regard and requires a unique treatment.
  1. Of course, as the cliche goes, there is no single solution to a case; there can be many interpretations of a case and varied solutions.
  1. Solution to a case has to follow a structure. One doesn’t have the liberty to write his/ her views on the case in whatever way possible. Needless to say, one’s expressions may vary.


Common mistakes that aspirants make in tackling case studies:


  1. Most of the times, the solution provided to cases are too obvious. Majority of the people write somewhat the same answer with slight variations. This is fatal. In order to be a successful civil servant, one must inculcate the quality of being innovative and out of the box thinker.
  1. People hardly pay any attention to the core purpose of a case. They treat the case as it is, without investing time and mind as to what attributes the case is revolving around. The main reason is lack of command over the contents of the syllabus. The lack of time during actual examination makes it even more difficult.
  1. People don’t play to their strengths and are swayed by perception. Even if someone is good with simple, logical and rational thinking, he / she spoils his chances in an attempt to quote moral thinkers and philosophers only because someone had told them to quote moral thinkers in their answers!
  1. All the cases are meted out the same treatment in the most mechanical way. Mostly, people mention all the alternative solutions to a case, their respective merits and demerits and conclude by recommending the most suitable one. It creates irritating monotony for the examiner.
  1. There is a definite style/ technique of writing here. People hardly consider this pattern/ technique. It makes reading painfully difficult for the examiner.
  1. They don’t understand the difference between a balanced and viable alternative. It is the easier to say that one must follow a balanced approach whereas it is almost impossible to reach a fairly balanced alternative.


Now, keep in mind the following before you attempt a case.


  1. Don’t approach the question as a simple problem statement where you are only supposed to provide solutions/ alternatives. Go deeper into the case and try to identify core attributes that the case is trying to examine. All cases are different of course and they are meant to test whether you are able to apply the concepts mentioned in the syllabus.


Take for example the following case asked in 2013:


You are the Executive Director of an upcoming InfoTech Company which is making a name for itself in the market.

Mr. A, who is a star performer, is heading the marketing team. In a short period of one year, he has helped in doubling the revenues as well as creating a high brand equity for the Company so much so that you are thinking of promoting him. However, you have been receiving information from many corners about his attitude towards the female colleagues; particularly his habit of making loose comments on women. In addition, he regularly sends indecent SMS’s to all the team members including his female colleagues.

One day, late in the evening, Mrs. X, who is one of Mr. A’s team members, comes to you visibly disturbed. She complains against the continued misconduct of Mr. A, who has been making undesirable advances towards her and has even tried to touch her inappropriately in his cabin. She tenders her resignation and leaves your office. (20 marks | 250 words)

  • What are the options available to you?
  • Evaluate each of these options and choose the option you would adopt, giving reasons.

Now, even a person having no idea about the UPSC syllabus could solve the case by considering it as a simple problem scenario and coming up with different alternatives.

However, this case was asked by UPSC to check whether you have a grasp over the underlying core issues. If you know the syllabus by heart and closely examine the facts of the case, the dimensions associated are: ethical concerns and dilemmas in government and private institutions; laws, rules, regulations and conscience as sources of ethical guidance, work culture and corporate governance.

If you are able to identify the core interest of the question, half the job is done.

We will make an exhaustive list of all the questions/ cases asked by UPSC in the past 2 years and indicate the respective component of the syllabus that UPSC intended to examine. Please refer to our website regularly foe updates..

  1. Having identified the core areas of interest in the question, you have to make sure that your answer revolves around the related concepts. Be very careful with the choice of words. You must clearly mention the relevant keywords to make sure that the examiner appreciates your grasp of the underlying issue. For example if you have figured out that a particular case relates to civil services aptitude, in that situation, terms like integrity, impartiality and non-partisanship, objectivity, dedication to public service, empathy, tolerance and compassion must find direct or indirect mention in your answer.
  2. There are certain tools that you must develop to produce a good answer. They help in making your answers more effective and presentable. Moreover, they break the monotony of your answers and believe us that is really important. We have discussed these tools in detail below.
  • Terminologies: You must have command over all the terms and terminologies mentioned in the syllabus in a way that you are able to write at least 30-40 words on them. You have to use these terms and sometimes their description frequently in your answers. These terms impart weight to your arguments. Generic words and expressions can’t fetch you better marks. However, avoid using too many difficult philosophical jargon. It is better to stick to the terms and associated vocabulary mentioned in the syllabus.
  • Remember the preamble of the Constitution, FRs, DPSPs, FDs etc: They guide you in rooting your decisions to the fundamentals of the Indian democracy. If you are able to quote these provisions, your chances of getting above average marks increase. We will come up with a list of relevant constitutional provisions indicated against various components of the syllabus.
  • You must be aware of certain laws and their important provisions: For example, cases have been asked by UPSC where sexual harassment at work place was the central theme. Now, even if you have little idea of the relevant laws e.g. the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and you mention it in your answer, the impact your answer generates is much more.


Moreover, there are many components of the syllabus that require a basic understanding of relevant laws e.g. RTI Act, governance issues, core of conduct, Prevention of Corruption Act, Prevention of Money laundering Act etc.

And, when we say laws, it also includes Supreme Court directives, rules and regulations, codes, conventions, standards etc. In addition, if you can learn about few landmark SC judgements and guidelines, it would be even better. For example, in the sexual harassment at workplace question, a small mention of the supreme court judgement in Vishaka case can really impress the examiner.

Please, don’t get overwhelmed by our prescriptions. You already have fair idea about these aspects from your detailed study of other GS papers. The only thing you need is to apply these concepts in the cases asked by UPSC.

We will soon provide a list of such judgements.

  • Quotes: Of course, there are millions of them. However, you can prepare a list of relevant quotes keeping in mind the demands of the syllabus. Use these quotes selectively and wisely. We will soon provide a list to you.
  • Important personalities: Many Indian personalities including freedom fighters, sportsperson, politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs, NGO heads, teachers etc are role models for their honesty, work ethic and dedication. Don’t hesitate to cite them in your answers but never use controversial examples.
  • Moral thinkers: Not all can effectively apply the thoughts and teachings of moral thinkers in the cases asked by UPSC. Many toppers who have secured very good marks in paper IV often recommend to quote moral thinkers in the paper. But you have to be very careful here. Don’t quote them only for the case of it. Many a times, the centrality of your argument would be lost in attempting to do so. We know many toppers who could secure very good marks without quoting a single moral thinker. If you can’t have a gun, learn to use your sword effectively!


4. Having acquired all the necessary tools, you are now ready to tackle any case asked by UPSC. In those cases where alternatives are already provided to you, the task is made easier for you by UPSC itself. However, it is more tricky to tackle those cases where you are supposed to create your own alternatives.


Here are Baba’s six steps to solving a case :


Step 1. Reading the case at least twice

In the first reading, simply go through the entire case. It will give you an idea as to what the case intends to ask and also which parts of the syllabus are related directly or indirectly to it. In your second reading, jot down the keywords of the case.

Step 2. Defining the issue(s)/Problem Statement

Start your answer by stating the problem statement. The problem statement should be a clear, concise statement of exactly what needs to be addressed. It is to decide what the main issues to be addressed are going to be. In most of the cases, it is already given in the question. In such a scenario, you must modify or reframe it as per your understanding.

It is important here to differentiate the symptoms  of the problem from the problem itself. In this case for example, while instances of misbehaviour towards female employees would appear to be a problem to most of you, they are in fact, symptoms of underlying problems that indicate towards lack of a disciplined work culture and also weak enforcement of laws in the workplace.

Thus, in the previous case, the ideal problem statement could have been: The Executive Director the Company is faced with the problem of ensuring a healthy and safe working environment to its employees without jeopardizing its profits.

Step 3. Identify the immediate issues that need to be addressed

This helps to differentiate between issues that can be resolved within the context of the case, and those that are bigger issues that needed to addressed at a another time. In the previous case for example, you might think to overhaul the entire working environment of the office, but the immediate priority is to extend all possible support to the affected employee.


Step 4. Analyze the facts of the case

In analyzing the case, you are trying to answer the following:

  1. Why or how did these issues arise? You are trying to determine cause and effect for the problems identified. You cannot solve a problem that you cannot determine the cause of. In the case under discussion, the cause of the undue misbehaviour of the star performer is the fact that he is under an impression that his contribution to the growth of the company can hide all his misdeeds.
  2. Who is affected most by this issues? You are trying to identify who are the relevant stakeholders to the situation, and who will be affected by the decisions to be made. In this case for example, the most affected lot is the female employees of your organisation. On the other hand, it is the duty of the top management to enforce a disciplined and healthy work ethic in the organisation. Hence all of them become stakeholders in the issue.
  3. What are the constraints and opportunities implicit to the situation? In most of the cases the constraints are clearly mentioned in the facts of the case itself or are implicit therein. For example, the biggest constraint in this case is that even if you are determined to take stern action against the star performer, there might be serious revenue and brand implications for the organization. On the other hand, any inaction in this regard can create dissatisfaction as well as distrust among women employees which is not suited to your organization in the long run.


You are supposed to clearly mention these constraints.


Step 5. Generating Alternatives

Be realistic: While you might be able to find a dozen alternatives, keep in mind that they should be realistic and fit within the constraints of the situation. The alternatives should be mutually exclusive, that is, they cannot happen at the same time.

Not making a decision pending further investigation is not an acceptable decision.

Avoid the tendency of providing only two other clearly undesirable alternatives to make one reasonable alternative look better by comparison. We have observed that for this particular case, most of the candidates had provided the following alternatives:

  1. Accept the resignation of the affected employee and take no action against the star performer so that the profitability and brand of the company are not affected.
  2. Dismiss the star performer and request the female employee to reconsider her decision to quit in order to send a strong signal to the employees.
  3. Some other so called balanced alternatives.

Anyone would be able to suggest the best alternative here. You have to be more innovative with the alternatives however. At this time, your choice of words become very important.

If you fail to do so, your answer will be painfully obvious to the examiner, and just shows laziness on your part in not being able to come up with more than one decent alternative.


Step 6. Evaluating the alternatives:

Once the alternatives have been identified, apply all the tools acquired by you to discuss the merits and demerits of all the alternative to select the most appropriate one. Even the most appropriate alternative will have some drawbacks. Be an honest person and include them in your concluding paragraph.

Plan of action for the future


Merely going through the content of this write up won’t help you in dealing with cases effectively. You need to practice with your tools as many times as possible. We at IAS Baba will post case studies regularly. Please try to follow the strategy provided to you. Once you have written solutions to 15-16 cases, you will become the master of case studies. But for that, you have to be sincere. We shall also participate in your discussions when you post the answers. There, your attempts to actual application of this strategy would be tested and reviewed by us. Wait for our next post.


Thank you

IAS Baba

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