Maybe it's the managers who need training

The Presidential Management Fellows program aims to train the agency leaders of tomorrow and is expanding its STEM efforts. But many of the fellows say the program is falling short.

The Office of Personnel Management's vision for the Presidential Management Fellows program is inspiring, even grandiose: an on-the-job university that exposes future leaders to the highest levels of government decision-making. But FCW interviews with former participants -- and a detailed review by the Partnership for Public Service -- suggest that the mundane way many agencies are using the program is at odds with that ambition.

Only about half of the respondents in the Partnership's October 2014 report, "Participants' Insights into the PMF Program," said their work assignments gave them opportunities to enhance their leadership skills. Fewer than two-thirds said their assignments were a good match for their skills.

Patrick Novak, a 2012 PMF, was one of those unsatisfied PMFs and was placed at his last-choice agency-- the Internal Revenue. With his two graduate degrees, Novak told FCW he was essentially a receptionist for two years during his fellowship, answering phones and redirecting people who walked into the office by accident.

He said he sought opportunities to get more involved and do meaningful work -- using his degree in linguistics to translate foreign-language documents to English at one of the IRS bureau offices, for example -- but halfway through his program he was so discouraged with the results that he stopped trying.

While Novak's story is just one example of an underused PMF, the report found that one-third of respondents were dissatisfied with their agencies. (The program overall is more popular, with 80 percent of respondents expressing satisfaction.)

The results also revealed room for improvement in fellows' experience with their supervisors. In the Partnership's 2014 post-program survey, only 51.5 percent of PMFs said their supervisors made good use of their talents, and just 49 percent said their supervisors were effective.

"My boss had no experience working with PMFs," Novak said. "He was as new to the program as I was."

A recurring problem of untapped potential

Gerald Shields, a 2001 participant, said the problems reported in the survey were fairly common when he was in the program, back when it was known as the Presidential Management Internship program. Shields said his experience was fruitful overall, but he noticed plenty of weak spots in the process.

"Once you were slotted into your home base, there wasn't follow-up with the receiving organization for how to get the most potential out of [the fellows]," Shields said. "It took six months before I really started doing substantive work."

Shields, who is now a tax law specialist at the IRS' new International Coordination Group, said he was lucky that his manager had experience working with PMFs and trusted him with important work. But he recalled that not everyone in his cohort was so lucky.

The same issues persist today. One PMF at the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example -- an Iraq war veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity -- said his office did not accommodate any of the needs associated with the injuries he sustained while serving in Iraq.

He needed some special accommodations, including a quiet work space and the ability to receive task assignments via voice recordings, but he said no one from OPM or VA followed up with him about his disability needs once he was placed in the program. When he tried working with his supervisor on the accommodations, he said his requests were met with hostility and often his disability needs were denied.

When he expressed his concerns to OPM and the PMF program office and tried to get reassigned, he said OPM officials told him they couldn't help and he had to work with it out with VA.

"They wouldn't even give me the ability to find out what other agencies were soliciting for to find other opportunities," the PMF said.

After seven months of effort, he has yet to be reassigned to another office. He said in the past year, he has often been told that he's "just here to learn" and more than once was told not to ask questions in meetings.

"I thought I was coming here to do work to better society," he said. "I was willing to leave my full-time job, my home of 28 years, relocate my entire family, all because I believed in what was sold to me — that this was a great program. And it's been anything but."

Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, said agencies need to pay closer attention to how they manage their PMFs.

"OPM can offer some training for PMF supervisors, but if agencies aren't holding their own supervisors accountable, it doesn't matter how much training or orientation OPM does with them," he said.

"I was willing to leave my full-time job, my home of 28 years, relocate my entire family, all because I believed in what was sold to me — that this was a great program. And it's been anything but."

 

OPM mandates training for managers who hire PMFs, said Kimberly Holden, deputy associate director for recruitment and hiring at OPM. Every year, the agency provides online training to help managers understand how to approach the two years they will spend working with the fellows.

"The manager is in a great position to guide the PMF," Holden said. "These fellows come fully charged and ready to tackle new challenges. Managers have to acclimate fellows to the culture of the agency."

A new emphasis on STEM

In response to agency demand and a critical skills gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, OPM developed and implemented a STEM-focused track for the PMF program last year.

The 2014 PMF class was the first to have a STEM track, with a total of 91 fellows drawn from 920 STEM-track applicants. More than one-third of those PMFs have been hired for full-time positions at their agencies, with NASA being the first to do so, according to Holden.

She said the demand for a STEM track came from one of the agencies: Jeri Buchholz, assistant administrator for human capital management at NASA, pitched the idea to OPM and worked with the PMF program to make it a reality.

"The diversity of talent in the STEM group is overwhelming," Holden said.

To target its outreach, OPM gathers data on schools that graduate a high level of STEM talent and partners with agencies to understand their strategic workforce planning and existing recruitment efforts.

OPM is not blind to how the workforce is changing, but that doesn't alter the way the agency plans to run the PMF program, Holden said. Unlike the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which assigns specialists to work on specific projects, the PMF program is, first and foremost, a leadership development program.

Some top government leaders started out as PMFs, such as the General Services Administration's Dan Tangherlini and former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

"The PMF program is looking long term," Holden said. "We know the next generation of federal workers will not be here for life, but we want to train them and fill positions that are longer term."

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