State Department Withdraws From Top Recruitment Program — Sowing Confusion

State no longer will hire finalists from a prestigious fellowship program. It didn’t bother to tell employees or the fellows themselves.


There’s a pool of top talent vying for entry-level jobs at the State Department, but the department no longer wants them. Nor have they bothered to tell them that.

A State Department spokesman told Foreign Policy the department is temporarily withdrawing itself from participation in the Presidential Management Fellowship program, an esteemed program that recruits cream-of-the-crop graduates into the federal government. The spokesman cited an ongoing reorganization of the State Department, but did not say when the temporary suspension would end.

“We have temporarily suspended hiring new Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs) pending the Department’s re-design,” R.C. Hammond, a communications advisor for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, wrote in an email to FP. “We still have an active PMF community of over 70 PMFs in the Department and look forward to future Fellows.”

This was news to both State Department officials and PMF finalists gunning for jobs at Foggy Bottom, who said they have gotten no guidance from State Department management on their status.

The confusion offers a glimpse into the turmoil prevailing in the State Department bureaucracy as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presses ahead with controversial plans to reorganize Foggy Bottom and the Trump administration pursues draconian budget cuts for the diplomatic corps.

The State Department’s communication with PMF finalists who were approached for jobs “has been non-existent” said one finalist, who was in talks with a State Department office for a position but hasn’t heard back since April.

Four PMF finalists said that the State Department never formally notified them of the decision, nor the other PMF finalists they keep in regular contact with. Instead, word has spread informally among the fellows.

When contacted by FP, several State Department officials familiar with the program also were not aware of the decision. Department offices have also quietly admitted to some finalists that they had no guidance from management on the issue and only hear developments themselves through the news. “No one tells them anything, either,” one finalist said. “It’s just really disappointing and frustrating.”

Some fellows hoping for a job with State will go to other federal government agencies, while others are simply left in the lurch — as are the understaffed offices that desperately want to employ them. Those who were already offered jobs and are in the security clearance process are now in limbo.

“At the end of the day, we have a tentative offer, an office that wants us, and a top secret security clearance. And yet, it sounds like we won’t get the job,” said one PMF finalist who already received an offer from State.

“We just feel very hopeless and really dejected,” said another fellow in the same circumstance.

The State Department’s decision to cut itself off from a relatively inexpensive program offering access to top pools of talent has also vexed veteran diplomats. Critics say the decision will starve State of some potentially top diplomats of the next generation. It remains unclear whether other federal agencies are following suit.

The PMF program is a prestigious, highly-competitive fellowship offered to graduates looking to serve in government as civil servants. The program is a two-year training and development program, after which PMFs, as they’re called, can transition into full-time federal employment.

Only a small pool of candidates — roughly 5 percent — are chosen as finalists after a stringent application process. This year, 417 made the cut out of some 6,370 applicants. State is a top choice for many — though there are only a few dozen slots available there. If PMF finalists can’t secure a job within a year, their status as a finalist is revoked and they have to start the whole process over again.

This isn’t the first time the department has cut itself off from fresh talent, as Tillerson ended another fellowship that fast tracks new hires. He also tried to end fellowship programs that target women and minority recruits, but reversed that decision after a political backlash.

The decisions come amid the Trump administration’s steep proposed budget cuts to the State Department and Tillerson’s ongoing effort to “redesign” the department. The administration’s approach has unnerved veteran diplomats, who worry the department will be less effective and the diplomatic corps weakened.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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