Pearson’s Department of State: Should Corporations be Allowed to Decide Who Serves in Government?

Anonymous - September 9th 2015

Pearson, an industry-leading textbook publisher and private education company, is the gatekeeper for many careers at the United States (US) Department of State (DOS). Pearson took over this duty from ACT in 2014.

Frequently, there are public outcries in response to the privatization of government services that are commonly thought to be steadfastly public. Some examples of this are the privatization of prisons, healthcare, education, and warfare.  It is easy to spot instances of privatization when the bureaucracy that supports the services is experienced in everyday life. If a convict is sentenced to a stint in a private prison, differences in quality of service may become quickly apparent to that particular individual, but not to the prison system as a whole. If a government service is out of the public view then the ability of citizens to notice injustice can be diminished.

Embassies, the corporeal hosts of United States foreign policy, are unique in that they require employees to possess a modern skillset and a timeless sense of diplomacy. The question begs, how are prospective employees actually evaluated in practice?

Each year, hundreds of prospective DOS employees take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). This test plays a major role in who ultimately represents the United States abroad. It is the first part of a three part system to decide who is qualified to represent US interests.

Pearson not only manufactures this test, but is contracted to administer it during pre-determined testing dates, much like a college SAT – it even sells an accompanying study guide.


After attaining an appropriately high score on the FSOT, candidates are invited to submit a personal narrative somewhat similar to college entrance essays. Finally, upon a positive evaluation of the first two steps, candidates are invited to undergo a final oral examination conducted by the DOS.

Pearson’s role as a third-party providing testing services for the DOS is unclear. Though praise for Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) is seldom given, their government jobs website remains the largest public portal to careers in the United States government. If aptitude tests are necessary for the type of work Foreign Service Officers do, why doesn’t the DOS or OPM administer them directly?

Many tests not only filter individuals with varying degrees of knowledge, but test knowledge in specific patterns while revealing attitudes and culture. The worst case scenario might be that a private company, Pearson, has the power to siphon individuals of attitudes only they desire into positions of power.

Whether this takes place at all is unimportant. Does Pearson have some nefarious international agenda? Are they handpicking agents for US embassies, perhaps in an internationally coordinated attempt to boost its own stock price? Probably not. There are two further steps after the FSOT that are involved even before a prospective Officer has a shot at an interview. Those are administered by the DOS.


Our government thrives on a complex ecosystem of contracting work out to third parties. However, most people would agree that having private companies bid for a contract to build a bridge is very different than hiring a firm to recruit and train FBI agents. That role is clearly the purview of the FBI.

How far is Pearson removed from Foreign Service Officer selection? With scores of frequently young Americans representing US interests abroad, the boundaries set in government contracting relationships are seemingly crucial in ensuring foreign policy efficacy. Are those boundaries becoming too flexible?

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