A number of federal employees responded to my recent column about the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, largely reinforcing the flaws that recent surveys found in the way agencies manage this premier initiative.
These failures are important to address, given the government’s need to attract a new generation to federal service, groom future leaders and bring fresh ideas to our public sector. Today, only 7 percent of full-time permanent federal employees are under the age of 30, while they account for about a quarter of the total U.S. workforce.
One longtime federal executive who has worked at several agencies including NASA wrote to me that “the PMFs that I know are among the best and brightest,” and lamented that “we are turning them off from government service early in their careers.”
“Leaders need to pay closer attention to who supervises the fellows and ensuring that they are provided meaningful assignments,” the executive wrote. “These things should be done for all new hires, PMFs or not. However, if we cannot do that for the small percentage of new hires that the PMFs represent, then there is no way it can be done on a larger, across-the-board, scale.”
He suggested that PMFs, and for that matter all new federal employees, receive better orientation programs to help in their transition to the job and to make sure that their initial enthusiasm is not drained before they even get going.
Another reader, who was in the PMF class of 2008 and who remains in government, believes the program has a great deal of potential but said agencies are not adequately prepared to provide meaningful experiences and often see the fellows as an easy way to accomplish “less-meaningful work.”
“I have never felt a sense of entitlement and I have always been eager to work hard. But I don't feel I was ever given the opportunity to grow or to use my full skill-set as a PMF,” she wrote.
Another fellow from the class of 2008 wrote that her agency used the program as a way to backfill open positions and provided little guidance.
“Some individual PMFs were lucky to be randomly assigned to managers who bought into the idea of the PMF program and provided focused mentorship and professional opportunities. Most of the others were placed in open positions that normally had no promotion potential, with untrained or uninvolved managers,” she wrote.
“It should come as no surprise that placing ambitious recruits with advanced education and, in many cases significant prior career experience, into routine office-pool positions with no promotion potential and no mentorship opportunities is a good way to convince those recruits that federal service is not the place for them,” she added.
A fellow from 2001 said her agency had a strong PMF program. It was run by a now retired employee who assigned second-year fellows to the first-year participants, creating a buddy system to help individuals cope with a variety of workplace issues. She said the fellows also were told to find a senior manager as a mentor, but it was difficult.
“I could have used a strong mentor because I had a very difficult start owing to a distracted manager. I was so discouraged in the first weeks, I almost quit altogether,” she wrote. “It was the PMF coordinator who supported me during that period and helped me to improve the situation.”
She said her PMF coordinator also scheduled special meetings where the fellows could bond, discuss their experiences and help each other. She recommended that more thought and direction be provided to build support for the PMFs during the first year on the job.
A different perspective was offered by a woman who was a fellow more than three decades ago, and who has remained in federal service outside the Beltway. Her message is that PMFs should temper their expectations and be more realistic.
“Yes, those first two years had less-than-challenging assignments for this know-it-all GS-9 just out of grad school, and some of my supervisors were not the best, but that’s life. One focuses on what we can learn and contribute in public service,” she wrote. “Any PMF need not expect the waters to part and top-notch assignments to be the norm. Those first two years are building years when you learn the organization’s culture and how you can help meet its needs, not how the organization can put you above all other employees.”
There is truth in all of these perspectives, but the bottom line is that the PMF program is a valuable tool to attract smart young people to government. Leaders at federal agencies would be wise to pay closer attention to how their managers are handling the PMF program and ensure fellows are given sufficient guidance, meaningful work, a chance to grow and an opportunity to succeed. This takes time, vigilance and someone who cares, but it would be well worth the effort.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership. He can be contacted at email@example.com.