Tuesday, December 12, 2006

State Department revamps FSO exam

And now, from the "speed over quality" files, comes a report that the State Department is revamping the testing process for Foreign Service Officers.

For more than 70 years, this exam process has been a model for best practices in merit-based selection. Candidates for these positions must undergo a day-long testing process, consisting of a rigorous written test covering a variety of issues followed by an oral interview.

Now, in the face of the upcoming retirement wave and "talent war", the department is shifting gears in light of a McKinsey study. The emphasis will shift from the written test (which will still exist in a truncated form) to "resumes, references, and intangibles such as 'team-building skills'."


- The current testing process is widely acknowledged to be a valid predictor of performance.

- Making it through the current process is an enormous sense of pride for FSOs and most likely results in increased retention.

- The current process contributes to the reputation of the department, making it the only public-sector organization to be ranked in the top 10 by a recent Business Week survey of college undergrads and career recruiters.

Apparently these changes are being made to be better able to compete with private sector employers and to speed up the process. Ironic, since they don't seem to be having a problem attracting candidates (the selection rate is approximately 1-2%). In addition, I have to wonder, if the written test is the bottleneck, why it couldn't be offered more often, be computer-based, etc.

Unfortunately, these changes could have the opposite of the intended effect: highly qualified candidates may be less likely to apply as the cachet of joining the ranks lessens. Even if they apply, they will be selected based on a likely less valid approach that focuses more on resumes and standardized applications rather than on a proven written test.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend among federal government agencies, as the State Department now joins the Army in a seeming campaign of standards reduction.

BTW, active discussion of this over at IPMAAC's listserv.

1 comment:

trevor said...

The main purpose of the current testing (Revamped in End of 2007) is amied at not just identifying the Bookworm'ish candidates, but candidated with a well rounded approach. This does not mean to say that written exams are not important, but one's life/work experiences including foreign languages (particularly, Critical and super critical languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Chinese etc.)are vital to identify potential candidates.