Do OPM program’s e-mail issues indicate broader problems?

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 5, 2012

Are problems with the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program examples of broad failures by the Office of Personnel Management?

Or are they minor mishaps, affecting relatively few and quickly corrected?

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The top two House Republicans overseeing the federal workforce are calling on the Obama administration to explain recent missteps with the prestigious program designed to attract future government leaders.

PMF advertises itself as “a flagship leadership development program at the entry level for advanced degree candidates.”

But a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, from Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Dennis A. Ross (Fla.) says that “unfortunately, recent problems with OPM’s administration of the Program threaten its prestige and the government’s ability to recruit future Fellows.”


A letter to the Office of Personnel Management, from Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.), above, and Dennis A. Ross (Fla.) says that “unfortunately, recent problems with OPM’s administration of the Program threaten its prestige and the government’s ability to recruit future Fellows.” (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Baloney, says a former fellow.

“I find it ironic that they blow a simple email mistake, and what amounts to less than three days of computer issues, completely out of proportion,” said Mary Krebs Devine, who was in the class of 2000. She posted her comments to washingtonpost.com’s Federal Eye blog. “I graduated from the PMF program’s forerunner, the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program. . . . It was, and still is, an effectively and efficiently run program. This outstanding program will not be tarnished by a simple email blunder.”

The March 1 letter to OPM Director John Berry identified the blunders:

●On Jan. 23, OPM mistakenly sent 300 semifinalists, who had not qualified as finalists, e-mails congratulating them on their acceptance into the program.

●On Nov. 1, 2011, OPM sent out blank e-mails that did not identify whether applicants qualified for the in-person assessment.

●From Oct. 7-10, 2011, qualified applicants could not access the online assessment tool.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Ross, chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, said they are “concerned that these problems are indicative of larger IT failures within OPM, which include Retirement Modernization and USAJobs.gov.” The retirement program and the online jobs board have experienced serious technical issues.

Whether they were big problems or small, certainly the January PMF mistakes caused heartburn among applicants.

“Why were some individuals receiving both acceptance & rejection emails while others just received one or the other and still others never received anything at all?” asked one who wrote to the PMF Facebook page on Jan. 24.

“So what does that mean?” asked another the day before. “Was the second email a correction? I got one that stated I was accepted. Now I’m checking constantly to see if it was a mistake.”

A spokesman for OPM said it is “reviewing the letter and we will respond as appropriate. Our goal is to have this program shine and be a premier gateway to Federal service. 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.”

Although the letter had a somewhat negative tone, a program fan, Laurel McFarland, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, found the positive side.

Issa and Ross “are signaling that they care” about the fellows program, said McFarland, after noting her organization’s long history of involvement with it.

“We believe the PMF program does need more attention from all its stakeholders, from OPM, from Congress. . . . This program is so important that it is worth strengthening,” and that comes through in the letter, she said.

There were 472 fellows in the class of 2011, a sharp drop from the 578 in 2010. After a rigorous selection process, the finalists are invited to an invitation-only job fair where they can discuss opportunities with agency representatives. The next job fair will be held March 19-21 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Those selected get a two-year appointment in an agency with pay and benefits, plus 160 hours of formal classroom training on leadership, management, policy and other topics, according to the PMF Web site, and a “potential for accelerated promotions.”

At the end of the two years, fellows get “a certificate of completion, which permits immediate appointment to a position in the competitive or excepted service and carries prestige anywhere you go thereafter.”

Issa and Ross asked Berry to submit a “description of all issues that may have adversely affected a candidate’s ability to apply for the Program and what specific actions OPM took to remedy those issues.”

They also want, by April 13, a list of formal complaints OPM has received about the program.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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