Presidential Management Fellows program succeeding, but room for improvement

The Presidential Management Fellows program’s chief goal is to attract outstanding graduate students to federal service by offering them two-year fellowships with challenging work and leadership development opportunities.

A survey of a recent group of fellows shows that the program may be succeeding at attracting skillful men and women to federal service, but the survey also uncovers a number of areas federal agencies need to improve on if they hope to retain these individuals as long-term federal workers.

The Partnership for Public Service released a report Thursday revealing the findings of a 2014 survey of 101 of the 470 fellows in the PMF’s Class of 2011. Eighty percent of the survey’s participants said they were satisfied with their overall experience in the program, and 84 percent said they were satisfied with the rotational assignments put in place to give them a more varied and richer experience on the job.

“After completing the two-year fellowships, 87 of the 101 fellows surveyed were offered permanent full-time federal employment, and 83 accepted the offers,” the report said. “However, the survey revealed some opportunities for improvement to ensure the continued success and viability of this important federal development program.”

The Partnership compared the results of its 2014 survey with a First Impressions Survey it conducted with the same group of fellows shortly after they entered the program in 2011.

Twenty-five percent of those surveyed in 2014 finished the program with a less-than-positive impression of working in the federal service compared to how they felt in 2011.

“Only 67 percent were satisfied with the agencies in which they worked, and many of the positive first impressions the fellows had of their supervisors in 2011 gave way to lower levels of satisfaction by the end of the program,” the report said.

More than 90 percent of the fellows considered work environment issues such as opportunities for learning and growth, recognition, and the chance to work with intelligent and highly motivated colleagues as very desirable. However, many of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with having these desires met.

“There is a disconnect between OPM’s vision of the PMF program as a leadership development program and the agency-based supervisors’ implementation of the program,” the report said. “The OPM website asks, ‘What do you want to change about government?’ and challenges aspiring fellows to bring ‘fresh, new ideas and a willingness to take on challenges never dreamed possible.’ However, a little less than half of respondents said they were provided opportunities to be creative in their jobs. In the early months of the program, only about half of PMFs felt that their supervisor provided clear directions about their role and responsibilities.”

When the responses to both surveys are taken together, it becomes clear that agencies need to be more upfront about the nature of the work assignments fellows encounter and what the agency’s expectations are.

At the end of their fellowships, 25.7 percent of respondents said they were “less positive” about working for the federal government, 47.5 percent said the felt “about the same” and 26.7 percent said they were “more positive”.

Rating Supervisors
Question 2011 First Impressions Survey 2014 Post-Program Survey Difference
My supervisor was an effective people supervisor 78.2% 49.0% 29.2%
My supervisor was an effective technical supervisor 79.8% 57.0% 22.8%
My supervisor valued PMF contributions 86.6% 71.0% 15.6%
My supervisor communicated well 71.9% 59.4% 12.5%
My supervisor treated PMFs with respect 89.0% 77.2% 11.8%
My supervisor made good use of PMF talents 60.5% 51.5% 9.0%
My supervisor was available when needed 73.4% 72.3% 1.1%

When it came to ranking their immediate supervisors, the PMFs started off feeling mostly positive in 2011, but those feelings declined by the end of the program.

“The initial positive impressions of supervisors in the areas of valuing PMF contributions and possessing good technical, communication and people skills declined over the course of the program,” the report said. “Fellows initially gave low marks to supervisors in how they made use of PMFs’ talents and their satisfaction levels dropped in the second survey.”

The quality of supervisors varied among PMFs, the report said.

“The person who hired me left before I arrived, and my new supervisor never knew what to do with me and treated me like an intern,” one PMF wrote. “Other PMFs at my agency had wonderful experiences with supervisors who really wanted the best for them.”

The PMF program has undergone a number of changes since 2011, including the December 2010 executive order placing the program under the Pathways Program. Pathways is a multi-tiered program offering employment opportunities and internships for students and recent grads.

The Partnership offered a number of suggestions for the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies to improve the PMF program based on information gleaned from the surveys.

First, OPM should gather information from PMF participants, agencies and others stakeholders to make the program more responsive to the needs of the fellows and agencies.

OPM should also work to eliminate discrepancies between how the program is advertised and the way its leadership development and innovation are presented to participants.

In addition, OPM should “create an effective mechanism for airing and addressing PMF questions, challenges, and grievances to catch small problems before they become big ones,” the report said.

The Partnership suggested that agencies make sure their PMF job descriptions are clear and accurate. They should also provide realistic expectations during the interview process.

Agency supervisors should be held accountable for developing PMFs’ leadership and technical skills. The agencies should also try to assign fellows to projects that will help them to develop those skills.

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