by Katherine I. Lee
“It’s so refreshing to see these highly motivated applicants wanted to serve their country.”
Want to know where to find a former mayor, contortionist or jazz bandleader? How about someone who has appeared on stage with Luciano Pavarotti, visited Timbuktu or kissed Robert Redford? Need advice on owning a farm, collecting stamps or caring for a baby? You need look no further than the Board of Examiners of the Foreign Service, or BEX, part of the Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment [Department of State].
BEX members seldom talk about their multifaceted backgrounds, however, because they are too busy administering thousands of oral exams to Foreign Service generalist and specialist candidates and handling an array of ancillary duties.
Until recently, mentioning BEX conjured up images of burned-out senior (as in “citizen”) Foreign Service officers counting the days until they could join the ranks of the retired. Fair or unfair, BEX’s “corridor reputation” was right down there with a “Code Red” July day in Washington, D.C.
Times are changing. As BEX’s profile in the Department rises, partly as a result of the initial successes of the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in reversing long-term staffing shortages, it’s obvious that BEX is the best-kept secret in the Department.
Let me explain.
When I began my BEX assignment in September 2001, the first thing that struck me was the this-is-not-a-job-but-a-labor-of-love atmosphere that pervades the office. Whether administering oral exams or carrying out a host of other responsibilities, board members clearly are deeply committed to their work. Their reward is knowing they are helping to select the next generation of State employees.
The work is far from easy. Take the generalist oral exam. During the rigorous, day-long assessment, examiners evaluate the performances of candidates in thirteen “dimensions” identified as essential to doing Foreign Service work. Using their extensive experience as Foreign Service officers and their intensive one-week training in testing, examiners assign scores to the candidates for the dimensions observed. This awesome responsibility demands that examiners pay strict attention to candidates’ performances and follow stringent testing guidelines to ensure their evaluations are accurate and fair.
While assessing thousands of generalist candidates is the most visible of the examiners’ duties, it is not their only one. Aside from teaming up with specialist subject matter experts to test specialist applicants, BEXers review candidates’ files to determine their suitability for the Foreign Service. The examiners also develop training materials and coordinate off-site testing in cities across the United States as part of their varied responsibilities.
Take the exam itself. Remember the “demarche” and the “in-box” exercises? They have been replaced by the “un-blindfolding” structured interview that lets examiners consider applicants’ backgrounds in the evaluation process and the case management exercise that tests candidates’ management and quantitative skills. Group exercises set in fictional countries still exist, but with new scenarios.
While a team of outside experts specializing in creating “reliable” tests manages exam changes, examiners themselves develop those parts of the exam that use Foreign Service-specific material.
“The creativity, hard work and dedication examiners bring to this task are truly remarkable, ” notes Art Salvaterra, staff director for examinations.
The unprecedented changes from the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative also have had a profound impact on the examiners’ work. The Foreign Service written exam, for example, was offered twice this year, more than doubling the number of candidates advancing to the orals. The oral assessment cycle, normally spread over nine or ten months for the annual exam, was reduced to three or four for each of the semiannual exams. Off-site assessments, usually scheduled in three U.S. cities at the conclusion of orals in Washington, D.C., were administered simultaneously and in four additional locations. True, the office couldn’t have handled the surge of candidates without the assistance of temporary extras, many of them retired former BEXers. But examiners managed to train and mentor the help and do their work without skipping a beat.
If labor-of-love hard work was the first thing I noticed upon arriving in BEX, a close second was the striking diversity of examiners, in every sense of the word. All five career tracks are represented and grades run from [Foreign Service Officer] 02 to [Minister Counselor] MC. There are differences in age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Some examiners joined the Department right out of college (two are even Foreign Service “brats”), while others had successful careers elsewhere. And there is a wide range of Foreign Service experience in every geographic area. Despite their many differences, examiners collectively carry out their common mission and they do it in a unique, non hierarchical environment. Senior and mid-level officers, for instance, assume team leadership responsibilities on a rotating basis when assessing candidates.
What motivates officers to seek BEX positions? The answers vary as much as the examiners. “It’s exciting and important work. Each day is different as we examine new candidates,” remarked one examiner. “It’s so refreshing to see these highly motivated applicants wanting to serve their country,” said another. “I’m doing this for community service. I see lots of things wrong with the State Department and a good place to start fixing these things is with the people coming in,” commented another.
One examiner made a special appeal: “I recommend a tour in BEX for mid-level officers, particularly those seeking a change from desk work and Main State. The assignment is interesting and rewarding and offers unique insight into the Department’s testing, recruiting, and hiring policies.
“BEX offers opportunities for recruiting, outreach and mentoring activities for which mid-level officers — because they are often closer in age and experience to many Foreign Service candidates — are ideally suited.”
This brings us back to the question of “rewards.” In the past, BEX positions were not “promotable.” No one is arguing the work can compare with facing the risks and challenges of a high-threat post abroad. Yet, when you think about it, those promotable officers at those very posts would not be there if it were not for the wise judgment of the examiners who recognized their potential in the first place. The Department’s new Foreign Service core precepts encourage employees to participate in activities that promote employee welfare and strengthen the Department as an institution.
What better way to do that than a tour with the Board of Examiners.
Republished by permission from the State Magazine, November 2002, No. 402.