Foreign Service makes candidate assessment fully remote to broaden hiring pool

The Foreign Service is making a switch to virtual assessments for candidates, after figuring out a remote format during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Foreign Service is making a permanent switch to virtual assessments for candidates looking to join its ranks, after figuring out a remote format at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Department is moving to a fully virtual Foreign Service Officer Assessment (FSOA), an intermediate step for candidates looking to join the Foreign Service, after taking the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT).

The department will launch the fully virtual assessment in May. Foreign Service candidates who took the FSOT in February 2024 will be the first ones to experience these changes.

The Foreign Service Officer Assessment is the last step in the hiring process before the department makes conditional offers to candidates.

The Foreign Service is implementing these changes to make the hiring process more accessible and inclusive, allowing the State Department to recruit candidates unable to show up for the lengthy in-person assessment.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Global Talent Management Lucia Piazza said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network that these changes will allow the department to get a “more holistic view” of a candidate’s experience and skills, while lowering the barriers to participate.

Piazza said these changes are “driven by our desire to make our careers available to as many qualified Americans as possible.”

“Right now, what’s happening is folks are coming all the way to D.C. They’re dealing with taking time off work, the expense of flying here, hotels, jet lag. We don’t want things that don’t have to be barriers, to be barriers,” Piazza said.

“The goal is to see how people perform,” she added. “The goal isn’t to introduce barriers that aren’t necessary. This is something that candidates have been asking for, for a very long time.”

‘We knew for a fact that we were losing good candidates’

The department previously called this test the Foreign Service Oral Assessment but recently rebranded it as the Foreign Service Officer Assessment.

“The reason we made that change is because we recognized that not everyone communicates orally. We’ve had a number of candidates who communicate using sign language, and we want to make sure that we’re being inclusive,” Piazza said.

Prior to the pandemic, the State Department only allowed candidates to take the assessment in-person in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities, “budget permitting.”

“The changes are primarily to how we are using existing tools, and how we are leveraging virtual platforms in order to make sure that jobs in the Foreign Service and the State Department are as accessible as possible, to as many qualified Americans as possible,” Piazza said.

This is just the latest in a series of changes to how the department screens Foreign Service candidates.

The department, since July 2022, no longer uses Foreign Service Officer Test scores as the sole criterion for who moves on to the next steps of the selection process.

By moving the Foreign Service Officer Assessment online, the State Department is looking to recruit from a broader pool of talent.

The department, as part of its workforce barrier analysis work conducted by former Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, found the Foreign Service wasn’t drawing many candidates from the West Coast or Midwest for in-person assessments.

“We knew for a fact that we were losing good candidates who simply couldn’t afford it,” Piazza said. “I took the Foreign Service exam my senior year in college, and I wiped out my savings to come down to Washington, D.C. from New Hampshire, so I could participate in the assessment.”

‘Can you really size someone up virtually?’

The State Department is making these changes after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the department to rethink certain workforce functions.

“We have tools that we either didn’t have or weren’t using. And now we’re using them,” Piazza said, adding that senior leadership is committed to put funding into these changes.

Tom Yazdgerdi, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents U.S. diplomats, said the State Department briefed the union about these upcoming changes before the announcement.

“We’ve heard from our members who have asked, ‘Can you really size someone up virtually the same way you can in person?’ The department says, ‘Yes, we can,’” Yazdgerdi said. “We have an open mind and have seen a preliminary demonstration, so we are hopeful this will work.”

AFSA is seeking additional information about the assessment’s changes, including whether the department will set a minimum standard for a candidate’s internet connectivity.

“They say it’ll just be, essentially, a Zoom call. OK, but not all Zoom calls are created equally. Will that hurt someone who maybe doesn’t have access to a good internet service provider or link overseas?” Yazdgerdi said. “We want to make certain nobody’s put at a disadvantage because the whole idea behind this is to level the playing field, which we strongly support.”

How to ‘win the fight for talent’

Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, the director general of the Foreign Service and the director of the Global Talent Management Bureau, said in an exclusive interview in August 2022 that the department was looking for opportunities to make some workforce functions virtual.

“Diplomacy remains a contact sport, so there are things that can’t be done or cannot be done effectively remotely,” Bernicat said. “But the idea is how do we mix those two imperatives, being able to work remotely, but then also being present.”

The Foreign Service is also making these changes to prevent qualified candidates from leaving to start careers elsewhere.

“We recognize it’s a competitive labor market, and this is what we need to do in order to win the fight for talent,” Piazza said. “The folks who apply to the Foreign Service have many, many options. And we don’t want the hiring process to be a barrier for those who might be interested in joining us.”

The State Department has been laying the groundwork for these changes for years.

Don Bauer, the chief technology officer of the department’s Global Talent Management Bureau, said in September 2022 that the State Department is “virtualizing everything” it does to assess Foreign Service candidates, in an effort to diversify its pool of applicants.

“We’re very encouraged that we can start allowing a lot more people to participate in the process. And hopefully, that’ll increase our diversity,” Bauer said at an ATARC event on workforce transformation. 

Beyond moving the assessment processing online, the Foreign Service Officer Assessment still includes the same testing features as the in-person format.

“The assessment process isn’t easier. We haven’t made anything easier. It is still very, very difficult,” Piazza said. “What we’re doing is we’re getting better at identifying skills we need earlier in the process, and we are leveraging the tools that we had to use under exigent circumstances during the pandemic. We’re leveraging those tools now to transition into a more modern way to hire folks in the Foreign Service.”

Changes to Foreign Service Officer Assessment

The Foreign Service Officer Assessment consists of a group exercise, a case management exercise and a structured interview. All these steps used to happen on the same day, but the new virtual assessment will be broken into two days.

Candidates will start the virtual assessment with a series of problem-solving exercises.

“You’re given a pile of material, and information, and a problem set, and you have to write a two-page memo with your recommendations and analysis,” Piazza said.

Piazza said candidates can choose to take the case management exercise from home, or one of 850 on-site locations offered by Pearson VUE around the world.

Candidates will then schedule themselves for a virtual group exercise and structured interview, which they will complete virtually from home.

By breaking the assessment into two days, Piazza said the State Department gets to see how a candidate performs multiple times throughout the hiring process.

“It gets rid of the one-bad-day factor. I think we all have one bad day, and if this is your one shot, putting it all into one day really is kind of an all-or-nothing. So [let’s] give the opportunity for folks to show us what they’ve got more than once,” Piazza said.

The group exercise previously involved several candidates sitting around a table and grappling with a hypothetical situation to test their ability to set priorities and demonstrate their negotiating and interpersonal skills.

“Our assessments are a very long day, and they start very, very early in the morning. By making the switch to virtual, what we will be able to do is accommodate candidates in different time zones without forcing our colleagues who participated in this from the West Coast to essentially take an exam in the middle of the night,” she added.

The State Department is making these changes for Foreign Service candidates after it decided to make assessments for Foreign Service specialists permanently virtual in February 2022.

“Our statisticians looked at our data, and what we saw was that we were essentially getting very similar results, whether we did it in-person or virtually. But what changed was the satisfaction level of our applicants.”

Specialists also gave positive scores to the virtual assessment in a survey that goes to all applicants.

“The specialists were thanking us and, writing in to say, ‘It’s so great that we can do this virtually. You saved me all this money. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to actually go through with this process,’” Piazza said.

Foreign Service candidates were previously assessed against 13 “dimensions.” But under the new assessment, they will be evaluated against 11.

“It remains essentially the same — but streamlined, tighter and more closely tied to the skills that we believe we need in our diplomatic corps,” Piazza said.

Among the changes, the Foreign Service is now assessing candidates for “presentation skills,” rather than “oral communication.” The Foreign Service is also adding a new dimension for negotiation skills.

“That’s a critical skill for a potential future diplomat to demonstrate in the course of the assessment,” Piazza said. “We were looking at that before, but it was a subcomponent. Now, we have isolated that, and we want to really, truly assess how a candidate performs against that specific dimension.”

“Quantitative analysis” no longer gets its own dimension, but has been folded into a larger criterion for “information integration and analysis.”

“We didn’t see the value of having it stand alone. It really could be captured elsewhere. So it’s a little bit of shifting, a little bit of renaming,” Piazza said.

The department is making changes to the dimensions based on feedback from industrial-organizational psychologists who asked current Foreign Service Officers and senior leadership what skills entry-level diplomats need.

In all, the Foreign Service will evaluate candidates based on the following dimensions:

  • Critical thinking,
  • Cultural adaptability,
  • Experience and motivation,
  • Information integration and analysis,
  • Leadership,
  • Negotiation,
  • Objectivity and integrity,
  • Planning and organizing,
  • Presentation skills,
  • Teamwork,
  • Written communication.

Foreign Service growing ranks with ‘stronger’ pool of candidates

Piazza said the Foreign Service is currently hiring above its rate of attrition.

In fiscal year 2023, it hired more than 1,000 new Foreign Service employees, and about half of those were Foreign Service officers.

In FY 2022, the State Department hired 353 Foreign Service officers.

“The stronger the pool of candidates that we have, the more qualified candidates we can put into this hiring pipeline,” Piazza said.

Yazdgerdi said he believes the State Department’s leadership, amid budget constraints, supports funding to keep hiring new diplomats above its rate of attrition.

“They’ve given us an indication that intake will be a priority, which we hope is the case, because it’s Management 101 that you don’t want to cut off your new blood. That is never a good thing. So we want to see intake continue in a robust way,” he said.

Yazdgerdi said the State Department and the Foreign Service have yet to fully recover from years of spending cuts and a hiring freeze under the Trump administration. Overseas staffing, he added, remains historically low, especially compared to the department’s domestic workforce.

“We’re a Foreign Service, we need to be able to staff positions overseas,” he said.

The officer assessment currently has about a 50% pass rate. The department also loses candidates elsewhere in the process, such as those who can’t get a security clearance or suitability clearance.

“By the time we get you to the Foreign Service Officer Assessment … we have really whittled it down to our strongest contenders,” Piazza said.

Historically, only 4-10% of Foreign Service applicants who begin the process receive conditional offers of employment.

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