House probes OPM management, IT in wake of fellowship debacle

Monday - 3/5/2012, 5:07pm EST

When the Office of Personnel Management mistakenly emailed acceptance letters in late January to 300 applicants of the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship Program, disappointed applicants called the mistake "devastating" and "heart-wrenching."

Now, Congress is getting involved.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the mishap not only threatens the program's prestige but could point to larger technology issues within OPM.

Issa, along with Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who chairs the federal workforce subcommittee, has requested OPM provide information about the program, including retention rates and a list of formal complaints.

In a letter to OPM Director John Berry, Issa and Ross point to a string of missteps in the most recent round of applications.

In October and November, some applicants were unable to access an online assessment and blank emails were sent out failing to describe whether applicants had qualified for an in-person assessment.

And on Jan. 23, OPM mistakenly sent acceptance letters to about 300 semifinalists, who had, in fact, not qualified as finalists for the program.

'Indicative of larger IT failures?'

Issa wrote that the oversight committee is "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.

An OPM spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the letter and plans to respond. "Our goal is to have this program shine and be a premier gateway to federal service," the spokesperson said. "We are working hard to ensure any mistakes are not repeated. Above all else, OPM is committed to making this program equal to the excellence of the leaders it attracts."

But the lawmakers aren't only concerned about technology issues. They also pointed to a "lack of consensus" about the programs' purpose, the fairness of the assessment process and whether training and work assignments live up to the program's objectives.

Issa and Ross 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.
The lawmakers set a deadline of April 13.

RELATED STORIES:

Lawmakers to question OPM's handling of USAJobs

OPM: Fixing retirement backlog 'vitally important'