State Department ‘virtualizes everything’ to assess Foreign Service candidates

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The State Department, once relatively foreign to telecommuting for most functions before the COVID-19 pandemic, is taking steps to allow Foreign Service candidates to participate in some assessments virtually.

Don Bauer, chief technology officer for the department’s Global Talent Management Office, said the office “virtualises everything” it does to assess foreign service candidates,…

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The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews at Apple podcasts or Podcast One.

The State Department, once relatively foreign to telecommuting for most functions before the COVID-19 pandemic, is taking steps to allow Foreign Service candidates to participate in some assessments virtually.

Don Bauer, chief technology officer of the department’s Global Talent Management Office, said the office is “virtualizing everything” it does to assess foreign service candidates, in a bid to diversify its candidate pool.

Bauer said the agency, as part of a broader overhaul of the future of work, is taking steps to allow Foreign Service candidates to conduct structured interviews virtually, starting next year, without having to travel to Washington, DC.

“We are very encouraged to be able to start allowing many more people to participate in the process. And hopefully that will increase our diversity,” Bauer said Sept. 27 at an ATARC event on workforce transformation.

This is just the latest in a series of changes to how the department will screen foreign service candidates. The department, as of July, no longer uses foreign service officer test scores as the sole criteria for determining who moves on to the next stages of the selection process.

Support for virtual assessments began late last year, when the department began renovating nine rooms in one of its downtown Washington buildings to accommodate virtual interviews.

“We’re getting big-screen monitors and everything, so we can do virtual structured interviews, so we don’t have these people come to DC to sit in front of us,” Bauer said.

The department, in its work analyzing workforce barriers under the leadership of Diversity and Inclusion Manager Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, found that the Foreign Service was not attracting many West Coast applicants for in-person assessments.

“The State Department is very busy on the east coast because if you have to come to DC, that really excludes a lot of the western United States, unless you have a lot of money and you can pay to get to the department yourself,” Bauer said. .

The office is also working to virtualize the case management work foreign service candidates complete as part of their assessments.

“It’s one of those where they give them a set of information and a very short amount of time, and they’re supposed to basically demonstrate critical thinking skills. They have to come up with an answer or a solution or a recommendation, and it’s really like the diplomat, in the heat of the moment in these different places, that he’s supposed to simulate,” he said.

Bauer said these changes are informed by a recent analysis of foreign service officer exams and case management studies over the past 20 years.

“We considered the results of these case studies, this structured interview and this Foreign Service Officer Examination as inputs, and said, ‘We can, with reasonable certainty, predict the success of a Foreign Service Officer. foreign service with these particular pieces of information, it wasn’t necessarily just based on the review of foreign service officers, ‘and would kind of allow us to broaden the scope of what we do,’ he said. declared.

The drive to move more functions online stems from the department’s broader thinking about the future of work.

“The pandemic has really been a game-changer for us in many ways. The State Department has notoriously never telecommuted. It was never done. We’re kind of a quasi-intelligence agency, everyone has clearance where we work,” Bauer said.

However, that all changed when the department requested an exception from the Office of Personnel Management that would allow it to virtually swear in new foreign service officers.

“During this process, people were like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we could do even more things virtually with our workforce,'” Bauer said.

The State Department launched a mobility assessment tool earlier this year that allows supervisors and managers to determine the amount of telecommuting allowed for each position.

“If you are 100% telecommuting, we allow people to make remote work agreements. We do home telecommuting overseas, so we’ve really worked hard to provide some of those flexibilities, as OPM has done for years, because we know those are retention incentives for our employees,” Bauer said. .

Bauer’s office has changed significantly with workplace flexibilities. While the department has resumed “full operations,” he said only 10-15% of his staff are entering the office.

“Before the pandemic, I had two floors, packed with people. But we manage to do all our work. A lot of technology, a lot of work from a political point of view, but we managed to do it,” said Bauer.

About 30 employees, out of a team of about 350 workers, work in person every day. Some of these in-person workers are part of the VIP Helpdesk team for senior executives who regularly work in the office.

“It took me three years to get laptops that were secure and capable of providing administrative support, such as server management and [database administration] and stuff like that. We have two PIV cards and all kinds of special encryptions and everything is certified and approved, both for cybersecurity and information assurance and all that, but now my guys can manage the server remotely,” Bauer said.

Bauer said a pro-work from home State Department helps his office recruit and retain in-demand talent.

“There are people who said, ‘If you tell me I have to come back to the office, I quit,’ because they can continue Indeed today and probably get 15 fully remote jobs,” Bauer said. “So to be competitive, you’re going to have to do that. And honestly, who wants to schlep in traffic and sit there and pay $280-300 a month for parking plus gas? It’s starting to get really expensive. »

Bauer said his office is also taking steps to retrain and provide employee training as part of its employee retention efforts.

“What we see through attrition is that people are leaving because they’re not moving forward, and the only way to move forward is through training and retraining. We are getting to a point where we recognize that we need individual development plans and succession planning,” he said.

Bauer said the department previously launched pilot projects in which employees would submit their resumes, hoping to find other career opportunities within the department. But more recently, the department is reinvigorating career planning efforts that include retraining and reskilling employees in new positions.

“Everyone knows in the federal workforce, the first thing to consider is your training budget. We have money, but obviously we just came out of the pandemic because a lot of classes were in person and things like that,” Bauer said.

The State Department is also taking steps to more easily recruit new recruits.

The department rolled out a new onboarding platform, “Welcome to State,” in September and brought 700 foreign service candidates into the agency using the new platform.

“It works very well. We insert your data once, it fills all your forms,” Bauer said, adding that the forms are then routed internally to the offices that need them.

Bauer said the department also held talks with the OPM to ensure new recruits receive their benefits on their first day of federal service.

“We are currently pushing for benefits from day one of federal service. This is going to require a rule change within the federal government, but we are kind of paving the way to do it because we can provide them with all the documents on time, ”he said.