An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Diplomatic Surge

With the State Department on a rare hiring binge, the next U.S. president will inherit a beefed-up diplomatic corps. Foggy Bottom may get the personnel it desperately needs. But if the government’s fancy new test is any indication, the American people may not quite want what they get.

For years, the State Department has been the redheaded stepchild of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus. Chronically underfunded and outmuscled in bureaucratic turf wars, State has had trouble convincing Congress to give it more resources and clout.

For years, the State Department has been the redheaded stepchild of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus. Chronically underfunded and outmuscled in bureaucratic turf wars, State has had trouble convincing Congress to give it more resources and clout.

In a 2006 address at Georgetown University, Condoleezza Rice sought to change that. The secretary of state called for a new role for the department, a sweeping vision she dubbed "transformational diplomacy." "When the very terrain of history is shifting beneath our feet," Rice said, "we must transform old diplomatic institutions to serve new diplomatic purposes."

Since then, State’s fortunes appear to be on the rise. In February, Rice announced plans for the largest one-year hiring increase in the history of the Foreign Service — the culmination of months of hard lobbying and planning. President George W. Bush’s budget for fiscal 2009 calls for the hiring of nearly 1,100 new diplomats as well as 300 U.S. Agency for International Development personnel and a Civilian Response Corps, experts who can deploy to help failing states on short notice.

State, in other words, is finally going to get the human capital it desperately needs. Or is it? Starting with how State plans to transform one of its oldest institutions, I decided to find out for myself: I took the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). What I found changed the way I think about the future of the Foreign Service — and not for the better.

So You Want to Be a Diplomat?

If you’re an U.S. citizen, the FSOT is the only thing standing between you and a career as a U.S. diplomat. The test is the State Department’s sole criterion for choosing diplomats. In theory, it’s a truly merit-based system. It doesnt matter if you are a 21-year-old two months shy of college graduation or a 51-year-old law firm partner in the middle of a midlife crisis. Everyone has an equal shot.

Candidates who score above a certain threshold get put on a list of potential hires, ranked according to their results; bonuses are given for military service and proficiency in strategic languages. The test is used to select all of America’s career diplomats, from the managers responsible for keeping the embassies running, to the consular officers who decide who gets to visit the United States and who doesn’t, to the public relations experts who are the country’s public face abroad, to the political officers negotiating with foreign governments. (The bar is just lower for managers and consular officers.)

It’s hard to imagine a more coveted government job: In a 2007 survey, American undergraduates rated the State Department the fourth-most desirable employer in the country, just behind the private-sector dream team of Google, Disney, and Apple. (The Central Intelligence Agency ranked sixth, after the Peace Corps.) In 2006, more than 17,000 people took the FSOT. Just 10 percent passed the written exam, and a fifth of those made it through the daylong oral assessment that follows. In the end, less than 3 percent of all applicants were offered a job in 2006. That’s an acceptance rate significantly lower than that of Harvard Business School.

Given the rigor of the process, you might think that State is looking for the next generation of foreign-policy thinkers. But you’d be wrong. As I discovered, the test is as much about management jargon and decision-making under time pressure as it is about knowledge of things international.

The exam’s creator may have a lot to do with it. As part of State’s recruiting and hiring push, a new FSOT was unveiled last fall. The test and hiring process was designed with expert help from management consultant McKinsey Company. In a dramatic shift from the philosophy that has guided the test for the last three decades, McKinsey recommended that things like personal background and experience be part of the selection process.

The FSOT is one of State’s most venerable traditions. It has been offered in one form or another for 72 years. For its first 30 years, it served mostly to keep State looking very much like its secretaries — WASPy and wealthy. The test was only offered in Washington, barrier enough for potential applicants who couldnt afford to travel.

That all changed in the 1970s. In response to a series of discrimination lawsuits, the State Department brought in industrial psychologists to radically reform the exam. Questions about background and experience were banned because they could be used to probe for school ties or sift for the "right sort."

The so-called oral assessment, an interview and simulation exercise to which only people who passed the written component were invited, was likewise stripped of any personal element. One former examiner told me that when he started giving the test, applicants sometimes tried to slip helpful resume details in during their interview — their recent Peace Corps stint, say, or travel to some exotic land. They were given a warning and then could be ruled "out of order."

In a sense, the old format was one of the fairest tests going — blind to brand-name diplomas, sealed off from old-boy networks and immune to name-dropping. But it had other flaws. "The process isn’t rigorous enough to really get to know a person," a veteran diplomat I know told me recently. "Anybody can be at their best for five hours." A common complaint was that the exam favored people who were good test-takers but not necessarily cut out to be diplomats.

When State sat down with McKinsey in 2006 to explore revamping the test, the consultants recommended some major changes. After a year of behind-the-scenes tinkering, the Foreign Service Officer Test was officially relaunched in September 2007. Some parts, like the oral assessment, remain the same. Others are completely different. The four-part written test is now offered exclusively online, multiple times per year in hundreds of different locations around the world. And following McKinsey’s advice, for the first time in decades the selection process pays close attention to a candidates background and resume.

In looking harder at the "whole candidate," the new test represents a deep philosophical shift State hopes will help attract a broader, more diverse group of Foreign Service officers. The new test is designed to attract "as broad a cross section of America as possible," Marianne Myles, former director of States Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment and now the ambassador to Cape Verde, told me. "You dont have to be a political science major. We hire people who run the whole gamut."

I took the "old" FSOT in 2002 and passed both the written and oral exams but decided to continue on my path as a journalist. When I learned last year that the test was being revamped, I wondered: Will the new FSOT find the State Department the 1,100 candidates it wants? And, perhaps more importantly, will what State gets be what America needs? Logging in to the department’s online career center from my apartment in Berlin late one night last fall, I was determined to find out.

Taking the Test

I dove directly into an in-depth online application form requesting everything from the names of my college and graduate school to a detailed job history stretching back a decade. The most time-consuming part was the "personal narrative," five mini-essays explaining why I was qualified to be a U.S. diplomat.

The questions were very general, but heavy on verifiable examples. "In the Foreign Service you may confront obstacles and/or adverse circumstances…. Describe a situation in which you overcame adverse circumstances. What steps did you take to deal with the circumstances/obstacle(s)? What was the result?" The journalist in me was pleased to see Personal Narrative Section (4a): "Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to achieve a goal."

State wasn’t taking my word for it: For each question, I had to provide a name and phone number of someone who could verify the story I gave in my answer. In the months that followed, I heard that some of my references were indeed called and interviewed.

Eventually, I clicked "send" and was given a choice of dates to take the written exam. A few weeks later, I took the subway across town to the U.S. consulate on the west side of Berlin and sat down at a computer in a nondescript office to begin my test.

I expected the multiple choice, or "Job Knowledge," section to be the most interesting in terms of the priorities the questions revealed. I once imagined the Foreign Service to be a glamorous collection of pinstriped polymaths. And indeed, the sample question leading into the multiple-choice section (What jazz musician helped introduce bebop?) tested the sort of knowledge you can imagine needing to whip out to enliven an embassy reception.

But "Job Knowledge" is a tiny fraction of the entire written test — just one of four sections on the exam, and not even the longest. I was given 40 minutes to answer 60 questions. There were no tricky vocabulary words or esoteric concepts, no special strategies to digest. There was one question on world religion. One on European history. One on George W. Bush’s tax cut. One on the U.S. Congress. One on the political leanings of the American media. There was nothing on oil, nothing on terrorism, nothing on Iraq or Afghanistan or China. Indeed, the questions were all the sort of stuff a regular newspaper reader with only a passing knowledge of American politics and history would be well-prepared to answer.

As I clicked through the questions, I was surprised to see a large number — probably one sixth of the total — read like a pastiche of management-consultant jargon. I clicked through puzzlers about motivating employees, corporate restructuring, and organizational conflict management. A sample captures the feel: "A work group that has high performance norms and low cohesiveness will most likely have which of the following levels of performance: (A) Very high (B) High (C) Moderate (D) Low."

"Job Knowledge" also included questions anyone whos’ turned on a computer in the last five years should be able to answer: "It is common practice of e-mail users to have some specific text automatically appear at the bottom of their sent messages. This text is called their… ?"

As I checked my answers, I counted silently. Almost half of the questions dealt with subjects that had nothing to do with politics, economics, history, or culture. Whoever designed the exam decided to devote about 20 minutes of it to testing what applicants know about the United States and the rest of the world. If you took out the questions on American politics, culture, and economics, you’d have even less. By my calculations, that means only about 10 minutes of the Foreign Service written exam requires any specific knowledge of — or even interest in — anything foreign.

By contrast, I was given an hour for the 65 questions on the reading comprehension exam. This section was a lot trickier, with lots of hair-splitting questions about sentence structure, grammar, word order, and meaning drawn from complicated texts.

But the hardest part of the test was yet to come. As part of the total candidate approach, the test now includes an hourlong biographical questionnaire. The 77 questions were a mix of multiple-choice and short-answer queries about work experience, leadership ability, and job skills. In a few sentences per question, the questionnaire asked for examples to back up any claims. A legalistic note at the beginning of the test warned that any fibs would be grounds for failure or prosecution. It was a lot of ground to cover in just an hour.

The questions — about everyday office skills, meeting people from other cultures, and leadership qualities — were so obvious and banal I began to think the test was more about writing under pressure than establishing bona fides. I finished the last question with less than a minute to spare, took a deep breath, and went on to answer a broad essay question on American politics in the test’s last half-hour.

As I left the consulate, I couldn’t help but wonder at the way the written test was structured. This was the one opportunity the State Department had to really plumb my knowledge of America and the rest of the world, and they spent most of it asking me about things like sentence structure, how to be a better boss, and whether I had experience using a phone.

Later, I asked Myles, the recruiting chief, about the management questions I had encountered. (I interviewed Myles several months after taking the test and didn’t inform anyone at the State Department I intended to write about the exam before I took it.) "Foreign Service officers have to have management skills early in their career," she explained. "An entry-level hire could have significant-size staff to deal with in a given embassy."

Yes, but: Setting aside the question of how nailing six or seven multiple-choice questions proves I’m ready to manage employees, should diplomats be selected for their management skills, or for their ability to craft and implement effective foreign policy? Does it make sense to use the same test to hire managers as public diplomacy officers?

A Staff of Swiss Army Knives

A few weeks after taking the test, I got an e-mail asking me to download my results. "Congratulations!" it read. "Based on a comprehensive review of your complete candidate file, you are invited to participate in the next step of the Foreign Service Officer selection process: the Oral Assessment."

The closest test center is in Washington. As of this writing, I’m not sure I’ll make the flight — and not just because this article probably burned whatever chance I had at a career in public diplomacy. My experiences with the FSOT made me doubt whether the State Department’s hiring philosophy is likely to create the Foreign Service we need to cope with an increasingly complicated, resentful world.

The Foreign Service needs to be flexible and competent, but it also needs to be expert. The test should be a way to find the right tools for the job, not a way to hire a staff of Swiss Army knives. Analyzing the implications of local elections, deftly answering tough questions about U.S. policy and culture, negotiating trade deals, or even helping Americans in trouble thread their way through foreign legal systems — these are jobs that require specific, significant expertise and training.

I’m sure many will say its not fair to judge the Foreign Service by one test. But the Foreign Service is particularly susceptible to this sort of judgment — because the test (and a background check) is the only requirement of employment. In the end, I think the people who get hired are probably very qualified to do the job they’re asked to do. I just think they should be asked to do more — and the test should reflect that.

If the United States were willing to invest more time and money in training, these questions might not be so pressing. German diplomats, for example, spend a year in a sort of Foreign Service boot camp and are expected to speak fluent French and English before being posted abroad. American diplomats typically get seven weeks — most of it spent learning rules and regulations, not economics or political science or history or even management skills — before they’re thrown into a consular job somewhere overseas.

That’s not good enough. In 2006, Secretary Rice’s plan for transforming the Foreign Service included "preparing our people with new expertise and challenging them with new expectations." But the test I took can’t select candidates with the foreign- and domestic-policy knowledge needed to start the job cold. As a new administration takes a look at changing how America represents itself abroad next year, the FSOT might be a good place to start.

Andrew Curry is a writer living in Berlin.

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