Foreign Service Hiring Gets A Re-Exam

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

For generations, the United States has selected its diplomats through a two-stage test seen as a model of merit-based rigor. Pass hundreds of questions in a dozen subject areas and a day-long oral grilling by Foreign Service officers, and join the ranks. Fail, and find a different line of work.

No more. In a proposed overhaul of its hiring process slated for next year and to be announced to employees in coming days, the State Department would weigh resumes, references and intangibles such as "team-building skills" in choosing who represents the United States abroad, according to three people involved in the process. The written test would survive, but in a shortened form that would not be treated as the key first hurdle it has been for more than 70 years.

State Department Director General George M. Staples said the goal of the new "Total Candidate" approach -- which has the support of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- is to "improve our ability to find the best . . . compete more effectively with the private sector to attract the best, and . . . make our process faster in hiring the best," according to a draft cable to employees.

But some career officers and foreign policy types worry that the new hiring process could dumb down or politicize the Foreign Service, whose reputation for selectivity helps make it one of government's most desirable career paths.

"As long as these changes are done fairly, we have no problem," said Steve Kashkett, State Department vice president for the American Foreign Service Association, the department's labor union and professional association. "We would vigorously oppose any aspect of changes to the Foreign Service entry process that would allow for any politicization of the selection."

The revamp is slated for next year, if the department secures the money needed to pursue it. The decision comes as official Washington grapples with its biggest hiring challenge in decades: finding fresh faces to replace a tsunami of retiring baby boomers. Over the next decade, 60 percent of federal workers will reach retirement age, according to the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service. Yet most people between the ages of 18 and 29 think the private sector offers more creativity and attracts the best minds, according to a new Gallup survey.

"The truth is, there is a war for talent," said one of those people planning the overhaul. Yet the State Department suffers less in that talent war than do many other government agencies. State consistently is rated by civil servants as one of the best places to work in the federal government, according to the Partnership for Public Service. In a survey this year by Business Week magazine, college undergraduates and career recruiters placed the State Department among the nation's top 10 employers for new graduates. The nine others on the list were private-sector companies, including Walt Disney, General Electric and Goldman Sachs.

Once every year, nearly 20,000 diplomatic hopefuls walk into a meeting room somewhere in the United States or abroad; they are handed a blue essay book and a shot at a Foreign Service career. Over half a day, these applicants are tested on their knowledge of such topics as democratic philosophy, international law, world history and geography, along with math and English skills. The State Department warns that the only way to prepare is to "read widely," offering a study list of hundreds of texts.

Those who make the cut endure a half-day grilling by Foreign Service officers, meant to test qualities such as judgment and management skills. Each year, only a few hundred clear both hurdles and embark on a career abroad.

The proposed Total Candidate approach, born of a study by consultants McKinsey and Co., envisions a shorter, automated written test, offered several times a year at a commercial testing facility. It would be weighed along with a "structured" resume, submitted online, that State Department examiners would use to gauge work experience and references, along with less traditional qualities of leadership and people skills. The oral exam would remain the final test for entry.

"Instead of just looking at how well somebody does on the test, there's an opportunity to look at all these factors," said the person involved in the plan. "It may be that we look at resumes first and then at test scores. Both factors are going to be important."

The new approach would cut the hiring process roughly in half, to about six months, to better compete with companies that can offer promising candidates a job on the spot. The number of applicants is expected to decline, but to attract a greater range of experience and skills.

McKinsey acknowledged that the current hiring process is a proven predictor of candidate success. And for Foreign Service officers, the written test is a rite of passage, and source of pride.

"The sense that everybody passed this exam is important," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who brokered the Dayton peace accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995. Holbrooke entered the Foreign Service fresh out of Brown University, in 1962.

Holbrooke recalled that in addressing his Foreign Service class, then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk "made a big point of telling us that we had come in on our merit, and neither he nor anyone else could influence the process."

Set against that backdrop, "this looks like a lowering of the standards for entry . . . at a time when their focus ought to be on training diplomats for the real challenges of the 21st century," Holbrooke said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company