The Foreign Service Journal, June 2023

14 JUNE 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL subjective evaluations of performance in interviews and background reviews, albeit in an enormously intense fashion. So could we do without the exam? A Measure of Essential Traits Leaving aside why we would want to do so, my answer is that the exam pro- vides more or less objective information, otherwise difficult to ascertain, on the candidate’s competitive position on not all, but a number of traits essential for an FSO career, particularly policy work. Specifically, to quote the State Department: “The Foreign Service Officer Test measures your knowledge, skills, and abilities, including writing skills that are necessary to the work of a Foreign Service Officer. … Questions will cover a broad range of topics includ- ing, but not limited to, the structure and workings of the U.S. Government, U.S. and world history, U.S. culture, psychol- ogy, technology, management theory, finance and economics, and world affairs; English expression; and a situ- ational judgement section.” It’s not an IQ test, as I’ve seen brilliant people flunk it. Rather, much of it tests recognizing and analyzing facts and patterns under huge time pressure from a mass of often ambiguous data—a good approximation of how diplomatic policy- making and negotiations actually occur. These traits cannot be measured competitively by reviewing a candidate’s My answer is that the exam provides more or less objective information, otherwise difficult to ascertain, on the candidate’s competitive position on not all, but a number of traits essential for an FSO career, particularly policy work. elevated four times to Cabinet level, and some 15 to subcabinet positions as Deputy Secretary, under secretary for political affairs, or equivalent Defense Department or National Security Coun- cil staff positions. An FSO laid out the entire strategy for our Cold War struggle of more than 40 years; an FSO ambassador, next to a four-star general, convinced a reluctant Congress to support President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge; and an FSO in Kyiv’s Maidan Square inspired a whole nation. FSOs understand this; thus, in this same edition of the FSJ , the “AFSA Survey on the Future of Foreign Service Work” documented that fully 39 percent of FSOs aspire to mission leadership positions. For reasons I cannot fathom, our personnel system pervasively deempha- sizes, distorts, even denies this reality, namely, the priority of policy work. I was present when two senior GTM officials emphasized to the then-Secretary and the entire senior staff that officer perfor- mance needed to be based on manage- ment, not on policy, allegedly consisting of writing reporting cables. But look at the background of those FSOs now in Cabinet, subcabinet, assis- tant secretary, or major embassy chief of mission positions. All have a strong record of policy excellence. This focus on policy should be kept in mind in assessing Mr. Sherrell’s prefer- ence for subjective assessment tools such as the Qualification Evaluations Panel (QEP), the oral exam itself, and various alternative entry processes such as Pickering and Rangel Fellowships. As he indicated, the FS testing and recruitment process has changed over the years; and as many of us are aware, the CIA recruits highly intelligent, capa- ble people based not on a test but on personal narratives for the QEP or thor- oughly in the oral exam. Assessments of performance once in the Service shed more light on them, but those are also subjective; and, most importantly, the officer is already in the organization. Mr. Sherrell points out that the State Department lists, along with the traits for candidate evaluation, 13 dimensions of performance, some of which, such as cultural adaptability, leadership, and working with others, cannot be mea- sured by the FSOT. That’s fair, but the two abilities that in my experience distinguish truly effective senior officers doing policy from their near peers are their palpably impres- sive intellectual and communications traits, traits best measured against the universe of other applicants by objective test criteria. To be sure, a senior State Depart- ment official recently argued that the test has never been a predictor of future job performance, but is there statistical documentation for what should be an easily tested assertion? On diversity, Mr. Sherrell suggests that the exam is a problem but doesn’t explain why. Aside from obligations to advance legal, judicial, and administra- tion diversity, equity, and inclusion poli- cies, the Service derives unique benefit from them by representing our diversity to a diverse world. But how does the exam block hiring a diverse work force? Often up to 40 percent