Foreign Service looks back on last 100 years, highlights plan to recruit next-generation diplomats

At 100 years old, the Foreign Service as we know it is highlighting the steps it’s taking to recruit, hire and train the next generation of diplomats.

The State Department, looking back at 100 years since the birth of the modern Foreign Service, is highlighting the steps it’s taking to recruit, hire and train the next generation of diplomats. 

The department brought together current and former members of the Foreign Service and civil service last Friday at its headquarters, in celebration  of Foreign Affairs Day. 

Later this month, on May 24, the department will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Rogers Act, which established the diplomatic agency as a career and merit-based civil service. 

Department leaders at last Friday’s event highlighted key milestones in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s diplomacy modernization agenda. 

The strategy focuses in part on making sure the Foreign Service has the personnel and skills needed to stay ahead of emerging issues — such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, public health and climate change. 

Blinken, in a video message, praised current and retired Foreign Service officers for their “remarkable spirit of service.” 

“As administrations have come and gone, alliances and partnerships have evolved, new technologies have rewired our lives, you’ve provided continuity, knowledge, and guidance that’s helped our institution and our nation navigate an ever-changing world,” Blinken said. “So I’ve made it a priority to invest in our workforce, to make sure that everyone has the chance to develop new skills, grow their careers, use their talents to tackle threats and seize opportunities for our people — because we may not be able to anticipate every challenge, but we know that we cannot meet them without diplomacy, or without the leadership of our extraordinary diplomats, active and retired.” 

Former department leaders have also used the May 3 annual observance of Foreign Affairs Day to signal how employees will need to adapt and evolve to stay ahead of a changing world.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used the occasion, 23 years ago, to promise all State Department workforce 23 years ago that they would soon have internet access, “no matter where they are in the world,” adding that a “new world with respect to communications” was outpacing the speed of traditional diplomatic cables. 

To keep up with this changing world, the State Department is calling on mid-career experts in the private sector to join the Foreign Service.

The Foreign Service received more than 3,000 applications for its Lateral Entry Pilot Program (LEPP) since February. The department will winnow that applicant pool, which is still going through the assessment process, down to 100 finalists. 

Congress mandated the LEPP program in fiscal 2017, but Amb. Marcia Bernicat, director-general of the Foreign Service and the director of the Bureau of Global Talent Management, said the department designed the pilot to “meet the needs we have today” — to recruit and hire experts in fields that are becoming more essential to  U.S. foreign policy. 

“That expertise includes things that are less traditional, so people who hadn’t necessarily looked for a career in diplomacy,” Bernicat said. 

The State Department has been aggressively hiring under the Biden administration, and is now focused on more robust training for employees who are still relatively new on the job. 

Bernicat said nearly a quarter of the Foreign Service has been on the job since March 2020, and nearly a third of its civil service ranks have only been working since that date. 

“We are a very young department at the moment, in terms of seniority,” Bernicat said, adding that the Foreign Service will continue to hire above attrition, despite recent budget cuts from Congress. 

“We’re not having any trouble attracting people to join us to further advance the secretary’s goals of modernizing American diplomacy,” she added. 

The Foreign Service is also making changes to the way it vets candidates looking to join its ranks. 

The State Department, starting this month, 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).

Foreign Service candidates who took the FSOT in February 2024 will be the first ones to experience these changes. Bernicat said the virtual assessment lowers barriers for candidates who were previously unable to come to D.C. to take the test. 

“It eliminates travel costs, and other opportunity costs that have been barriers in the past and other logistics burdens. It improves our assessors’ ability to have multiple looks at candidates.  Not everything is riding on a single day, that may be your best day or your most nervous day in life,” Bernicat said. 

Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma said the department is “far from finished leveling the playing field,” but called some of these recent internal changes “measurable and important steps forward.”

“In an age of increased competition, of global interconnectedness of growing authoritarianism, it is vitally important for American diplomats and development professionals to show up everywhere we can to lead, to build, to grow, and to deepen cooperation,” Verma said.

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