Some Presidential Management Fellows Find Their Agencies and Managers Lacking

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For some presidential management fellows, their two-year stint working for Uncle Sam isn’t quite living up to their expectations, according to a new survey.

While the prestigious and competitive program still remains overwhelmingly popular -- 80 percent of respondents to the survey conducted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service said they were satisfied with their overall experience -- agencies and supervisors fell short when it came to providing opportunities for professional learning and growth, fostering a work environment that allowed for creativity and communicating effectively.

The Partnership surveyed the PMF Class of 2011 twice, once in 2011 to record their first impressions of the program a few months into their jobs, and again in 2014 to ascertain their post-program assessment. Of the class of 470 fellows from 2011, the nonprofit group collected responses from 274 PMFs in the first impressions survey and from 101 fellows in the post-program survey. Most of the respondents were from the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and State.

“There is a disconnect between OPM’s [Office of Personnel Management] vision of the PMF program as a leadership development program and the agency-based supervisors’ implementation of the program,” said the analysis from the Partnership. OPM’s application deadline for the class of 2015 was Wednesday.

For example, in the first survey, 99 percent of PMFs placed importance on opportunities for on-the-job learning and professional growth; post-program, 63 percent said they were satisfied with that aspect of their experience. Respondents noted being particularly disenchanted with opportunities to be creative. Eighty-three percent of respondents said in their first few months as a fellow that they placed high priority on being creative in their assignments; after two years, 48 percent of respondents were satisfied they’d been given those opportunities.

The PMF program, formerly known as the Presidential Management Intern program, gives current graduate and doctoral school students and recent degree recipients the opportunity to work for two years at a federal agency, earning the full pay and benefits of a General Schedule Grade 9, 11 or 12. Fellowship finalists are not guaranteed an appointment; however, once a finalist receives an appointment, he or she is usually offered a full-time position at the end of the two years.

While some 2011 PMFs were happy with their bosses, others were not enthused with their supervisors’ management skills. In response to the statement, “My supervisor was an effective people supervisor,” 78 percent agreed in the early survey. By the end of the program, that positive rating had dropped to 49 percent.

“Many respondents indicated that PMF supervisors varied significantly in quality,” the report said.  For example, one fellow wrote, ‘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. Other PMFs at my agency had wonderful experiences with supervisors who really wanted the best for them.’ ”

The 2014 survey also gauged fellows’ impressions of working for the federal government in general. Forty-eight percent said their impression stayed the same during the program, while 26 percent reported they had a less positive view and 27 percent felt more positive about working for Uncle Sam. Despite some troubling trends uncovered by the Partnership, 87 percent of those surveyed were offered full-time jobs at the end of their fellowship and 83 percent of them accepted offers to work for the federal government.

OPM has revamped the two-year program since 2011; for instance, PMFs now have specially-assigned mentors during their fellowship. And OPM is trying to improve the process for matching fellows’ professional interests with the right “home” agency.

Ultimately, it’s up to OPM and agencies to paint an accurate picture of what it’s really like to work for the federal government, and for managers to invest more in PMFs, so that  fellows’ expectations and experience align better, the Partnership concluded. “Based on both surveys, it is evident that agencies can improve the PMF experience by providing fellows with a realistic description of what they will be doing before they start their jobs, offering meaningful assignments that match their needs and skill sets, and paying closer attention to the quality of supervision and support they receive.”

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