Dec5200810:14 am

Foreign Service: “Redheaded stepchild of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus”?

The Foreign Service faces something of a crisis as baby boomers go into retirement: in the next decade, 60 percent of federal workers will reach retirement age, said this Washington Post article in 2006.  An even bigger problem, the Post article goes on to point out, could be this: that young people don’t necessarily want a career in traditional diplomacy.  It points to a Gallup survey that concluded internationally-minded folks of the ages of 18 and 29 think “the private sector offers more creativity and attracts the best minds.”*

In order to make itself more competitive and attractive amongst the array of specialized international NGOs, as well as to get the best candidates, the Foreign Service thought it might shake things up a bit:

In a proposed overhaul of its hiring process slated for next year [2007] and to be announced to employees in coming days, the State Department would weigh resumes, references and intangibles such as “team-building skills” in choosing who represents the United States abroad, according to three people involved in the process. The written test would survive, but in a shortened form that would not be treated as the key first hurdle it has been for more than 70 years.**

So how is the new test faring about a year in?  Andrew Curry thinks not so well. In his article in the October 2008 Foreign Affairs, he finds, after sitting for the new exam himself, that it is a far better judge of a candidate’s knowledge of management jargon than international affairs:

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.”

My favorite part is this specific question Curry cites as popping up in the “Job Knowledge” section: “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 …?”

Seriously?  I think I might consider the Foreign Service after all.  Of course it’s maybe not fair to judge the entire Foreign Service recruitment process on just one man’s experience (as Curry himself concedes), but even so I thought it was interesting to note Curry’s take on what recruiting for “transformational diplomacy” really seems to mean to the current administration: finding managers rather than diplomats or, even better, internationalists.

*It’s also interesting and kind of incongruous that while there is a big hoo-ha about baby boomers retiring and the Foreign Service’s ranks depleting and young people having no interest in replenishing those ranks, as Curry notes, there is actually no shortage of people who want in: “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.”  In 2006, 17,000 people took the Foreign Service exam, with only 3 percent getting a job.  Maybe NGOs are more desirable because your chances of ending up employed are higher than 3 pecent.

**Am I missing something or isn’t the exam actually still the first hurdle (at least according to Curry’s account)?  He had to take a test and pass it in order to move on to the next step (the orals) in order to, presumably and eventually, get the job.  So other than the test now having a couple of essays and a personal bio section and looking more like an SAT II than the SAT, has anything really changed?  Since I’ve never taken either exam, I really have no idea.  I’m only asking questions here.

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One Response to “Foreign Service: “Redheaded stepchild of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus”?”

  1. garrettkuk says:

    With all of the pre-election parallels drawn between JFK and Obama , it will be interesting to see how/if Obama’s foreign policy harnesses the enthusiastic young demographic. JFK created the Peace Corps during his administration, and the global worldview of Gen Y seems to suggest the right sort of strategic foreign policy will yield tremendous volume of talent and impact. Are we better off encouraging private NGO involvement rather than Foreign Service?

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