Changes will 'burnish prestige' of Fellows program, OPM director says

Tuesday - 5/1/2012, 6:51am EDT

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, wrote in an April 19 letter to Congress that his agency has taken the necessary steps to address concerns raised earlier this year about the Presidential Management Fellows Program. OPM instituted changes "to burnish the prestige of the program and improve the application and assessment process," Berry wrote.

The changes include an update to the application and assessment processes, the creation of a new database of PMF finalists, and convening an advisory council to promote best practices between agencies. OPM is also working with the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration and the Partnership for Public Service on ways to invigorate the program. Berry said the changes will be in place for the 2013 recruitment cycle.

Berry's letter, obtained by Federal News Radio, was prompted by a March 1, 2012, letter from Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), requesting information about OPM's management of the program.

John Berry, director, Office of Personnel Management

The PMF Program came under scrutiny after FoxNews.com reported that in January OPM mistakenly sent both acceptance and rejection letters to 300 program applicants within a 24-hour period. OPM said an "administrative error" caused the emails to be mistakenly sent out.

Established in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, the fellows program was set up to provide experience for men and women who had an interest in pursuing careers in public service.

Of the 9,077 initial applicants and 1,184 semi-finalists who were pursuing fellowships for the Class of 2012, OPM selected just 628 finalists, who were notified by email that they had been accepted into the highly competitive program.

When the agency realized that it had mistakenly sent out an additional 300 acceptance emails to semi-finalists who had not been selected, Angela Bailey, OPM's associate director of employee services, told Fox that the mistake was quickly corrected.

In the March letter, Issa, the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote that the committee was "concerned that these problems are indicative of larger IT failures within OPM." He noted the agency's longstanding problems processing retirements and the botched relaunching of the federal jobs portal, USAJobs.gov, which appeared unprepared to handle overwhelming site traffic.

Issa and Ross, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy, requested that OPM provide:

  • A list of issues that "may have adversely affected a candidate's ability to apply" for the program and how the agency remedied them

  • A timeline for changes to the fellowship program

  • The training materials given to agency fellowship coordinators

  • The retention rate for fellows

  • A list of formal complaints OPM has received about the program.

In his response, Berry addressed the congressmen's requests point-by-point:

  • "Though there were some complications during the application cycle this year, we do not believe they prevented any applicant from being able to complete the application," Berry wrote. "Instead, upon learning of the problems, OPM took prompt action to resolve them." PMF communicated to applicants via social media, email and phone calls.

  • "OPM has fostered a relationship with the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration and the Partnership for Public Service to seek their professional advice for the program," Berry wrote. OPM awarded a new contract to redo the application and assessment processes, with the end result being the creation of a new PMFP finalist database. OPM is also exploring the possibility of using senior government officials to assess applicants. The database will be tested in July and finished in August, with in-person assessments ready by September to evaluate Class of 2013 applicants.

  • Training materials are available via the PMFP website and coordinators are available at least once a year to provide in-person training. One-on-one training is available upon request and the program office provides year-round assistance via email and telephone.

  • OPM looked at the retention rate over a recent four-year period and discovered that at the two-year mark, the average rate of retention was approximately 84 percent. The overall retention for new hires in that timeframe was just 58 percent. After four years, 71 percent of PMFP participants were still employed by the government, compared to just 49 percent of other government workers.

  • "The PMF Program has not received any formal complaints, e.g. Letters to the OPM Director, Ombudsman, or other OPM official, during the period running from January 2009 to present," Berry wrote. "The PMF Program received informal complaints through our social media sites."

"The PMF provides a pipeline for highly-qualified individuals to serve the public," wrote Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa. "It is encouraging to learn of OPM's planned programmatic changes. However, concerns about information technology issues remain, and will be addressed by the Committee's on-going review of IT management problems that are obstructing OPM's mission."

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