State Department rethinks how it vets Foreign Service candidates to diversify ranks

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The State Department is making the biggest change in decades to how it screens applicants seeking to join the Foreign Service.

The agency, starting this month, will no longer use Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) scores as the sole criteria for who moves on to the next steps of the selection process.

All Foreign Service applicants will still take the written test, but the State Department will no longer treat the FSOT as a “pass/fail gateway.”

Instead, qualification evaluation panels will instead take a candidate’s personal narrative statements, and their background and qualifications — as well as their FSOT score — into consideration, to determine who will move on to the oral exam stage of the selection process.

State Department officials, as part of a broader modernization of the agency, expect these changes will help diversify the incoming ranks of the Foreign Service.

An association representing Foreign Service officers says it generally supports reforming Foreign Service hiring, but still has questions about how the agency will use artificial intelligence tools to vet candidates.

Mica Schweitzer-Bluhm, director of recruitment in the department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management said these changes will provide a more holistic view of candidates.

“It ensures that all applicants can present a full picture of their individual qualifications,” Schweitzer-Bluhm said in a recent interview.

The department said these changes mark the most significant overhaul to the Foreign Service evaluation process since 1930. But from the perspective of an applicant, agency officials say nothing will change.

“We’re actually not changing the application process for candidates. What we are changing is how we’re using the components of the application,” Schweitzer-Bluhm said.

Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that the department expects these changes will increase the diversity of incoming Foreign Service classes.

“Some people don’t take tests well. Some people have the resources to take courses to help them pass the written test. So we want to make sure that we are not screening out qualified officers by just the written test,” McKeon said during a May 3 hearing.

McKeon said he failed the Foreign Service exam in the 1980s.

“I came out OK, so not everybody can pass the test,” McKeon told the committee.

Prior to his current role, McKeon served as the Defense Department’s acting and principal deputy undersecretary for policy, executive secretary and chief of staff for the National Security Council and deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

He also previously served for more than 20 years in the Senate, including as chief counsel to the Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) praised the department’s decision to make the FSOT a component of a candidate’s application, but not its defining feature.

“This is one of those things that I’ve always said has been an impediment to people,” Menendez said.

Vetting candidates through AI

The American Foreign Service Association generally supports these changes, but seeks greater transparency into the agency’s use of artificial intelligence tools to assess candidates.

“The AI will make the first cut now, since the exam is no longer the first cut, because there’s no longer a passing score,” Rubin said. “This is not all new, and we’re not necessarily opposed to it, but we do think there needs to be more explanation of how this is going to work.”

The Foreign Service receives as many as 20,000 applications a year, but Rubin said in recent years, it’s been receiving about 6,000 applications a year.

“But even 6,000 is too many for people to individually review,” he said.

Once the AI algorithm screens candidates, Foreign Service examiners, made up of active-duty members of the Foreign Service and outside public members, will review the remaining candidates and decide who goes forward with the oral exam.

Rubin said AFSA still has unanswered questions about how the algorithm from a third-party contractor will assess candidates.

“We’ve been told that some of the formulas that are being used to make the hiring decisions are proprietary. We know the government has to hire contractors for some things, but this is public hiring. This is not Amazon or Facebook or ExxonMobil, and we think both applicants and the public that is paying for this and pays our salaries has a right to know, in broad strokes, how this system is going to work,” he said.

Once a Foreign Service officer makes it through their probationary period, which about 98% of them do, Rubin said they’re permitted to serve for 27 years, unless there’s a problem with their performance.

“Hiring somebody for 27 years should be transparent, and we should understand what the policies are and what the algorithms are,” he said.

While AFSA overall supports these changes, Rubin said the association is still seeking answers on how the department will use artificial intelligence algorithms to make the first pass on candidates.

“Are these changes leading to better results? We should not assume they will. We should not assume they won’t. We need to track that and we expect that we will be kept actively informed and consulted as the initial results are assessed,” he said.

Diversifying the Foreign Service

The State Department during the Biden administration has taken steps to address long-standing diversity challenges in the Foreign Service — as documented over decades by the Government Accountability Office and former Foreign Service officers.

Among its reforms, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career employee with more than 30 years of experience, to serve as the agency’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer.

In this role, Abercrombie-Winstanley has been focused on studying the barriers that prevent diversity from flowing up to the Foreign Service’s top ranks.

The department has also expanded its Thomas Pickering and Charles Rangel fellowships to bring more diverse talent into the Foreign Service.

In some cases, however, there’s been institutional resistance to these changes.

AFSA, in an article last year, said some Foreign Service officers selected through the Pickering and Rangel fellowship conceal this information, “for fear that their colleagues will treat them as back-door entrants — not real FSOs.”

‘Overall, we’re in favor of change’

Rubin said the AFSA supports rethinking the way the Foreign Service evaluates candidates, but is urging the State Department to keep his organization in the loop on these changes.

AFSA, in an April 26 statement, said it did not become aware of the changes until they were announced publicly on the State Department’s careers website.

“We do have an apology for that, and what we’ve said going forward, is we just want to be sure this doesn’t happen again, and that significant changes to policies affected the workforce and the Foreign Service specifically, which is our part of the workforce,  are not made without consultation. That there are no more surprises, to put it simply,” Rubin said.

Rubin said AFSA was recently been briefed in detail about the changes, and that the association largely supports them.

“Overall we’re in favor of change. We’re in favor of modernization and reform. We don’t think the existing system is particularly good, and we’re not opposed in principle to changes,” Rubin said.

Bluhm said changes to the Foreign Service assessment do not require prior consultation with union representatives, but said the department welcomes AFSA’s feedback.

“The department considers AFSA an important partner, and we have thoroughly briefed AFSA on the changes and answered all their questions,” she said.

Rubin, however, said the initial communication on these changes ran counter to the Biden administration’s April 2021 executive order that encourages agencies to work collaboratively with federal unions on reform.

“Under federal labor law, we represent the employees. No one else does, so failure to consult us is a  failure to consult members of the Foreign Service,” Rubin said.

Schweitzer-Bluhm said the department made these changes following extensive work from the Foreign Service officers who assess candidates, as well as consultants, industrial and organizational psychologists, and a working group of Foreign Service officers from every field of expertise.

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