Jacquelyn Martin / AP

OPM Asks Watchdog to Review Assessment Process for Prestigious Fellowship Amid Diversity Concerns

The agency acknowledged an “unacceptable decline” in finalists in certain demographic groups and is taking steps to improve inclusivity within the program.  

The Office of Personnel Management asked its inspector general to conduct an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the development and implementation of an online assessment for Presidential Management Fellow program candidates in 2017, according to a source familiar with the matter. 

The program, which is administered by OPM, is a two-year leadership and training program run by a career official. It is meant for advanced degree candidates, after which they may convert to permanent civil service positions. Separate from the requested IG probe, Peter Bonner, associate director for human resources solutions at OPM, and Mini Timmaraju, senior advisor to the OPM director, sent an email, obtained by Government Executive, on June 11 to the Presidential Management Fellows community saying, “it has become clear to OPM that the agency has been falling short of our standards in several ways.” 

Bonner and Timmaraju, both political appointees, continued: 

“Specifically, OPM has failed to address a significant and unacceptable decline in PMF finalists from certain demographic groups and has, at times, failed to foster a fully inclusive environment within the program. As described below, OPM and the PMF Program Office are taking action to address these challenges and we want to acknowledge those PMFs whose dedication to the program and our shared values of equity and inclusion prompted them to raise these issues to our attention. We understand the responsibility we have to the public, including the PMF community, in living up to our identity as a premier federal leadership development experience that best utilizes all the tools at our disposal to attract the best talent to the federal workforce, including through the recruitment, hiring and training of Presidential Management Fellows.” 

They outlined steps they are taking to enhance recruitment efforts, reexamine the selection process, revise the leadership development program curriculum and bring more diverse voices into the program. They said they are also “undertaking a thorough review of all elements of the PMF program” itself and planned to hold three listening sessions between June 28 and 29 for current and former fellows to hear their feedback on the program. 

The email followed concerns raised about diversity issues in the program.

Rena Yuan, a 2018 fellow who is now a data scientist at the General Services Administration, sent two versions of a letter to PMF and OPM leadership in May, noting a decline in Black finalists that was especially steep following the 2017 implementation of the online assessment, and also outlining perceived issues of inclusivity in training sessions. The letters were signed by fellows from class years 1986 to 2020; employees from 10 out of the 15 federal executive departments, other independent agencies and university/college affiliated staff; former and prospective program applicants; and other concerned parties.

OPM declined to comment for this story, and it is not clear whether OPM asked the IG to specifically look at how the change to the online assessment might have affected the diversity of finalists for the fellowship. 

Data from OPM on the fellowship program from 2016 to 2021, based on voluntary responses, shows a stark decline in the number of Black finalists chosen. 

In 2016, 19.77% of applicants and 15.58% of finalists were Black (a 4.19 percentage point difference). Then in 2017, the gap grew dramatically: 18.68% of applicants but only 3.84% of finalists were Black (a 14.84 point difference). The final year of data—2021—shows that 17.59% of applicants were Black, but only 2.91% of finalists (a 14.68 point difference). 

Meanwhile, the pattern for white applicants and finalists over this time period was the opposite, meaning there were increasingly higher percentages of white finalists chosen than applicants. Overall, there were slight drops in Presidential Management Fellows finalists for some other racial and ethnic groups from 2016 to 2021, but none were as pronounced as those for Black applicants. 

There are questions, however, about the applicability of the data. 

OPM’s data from 2016 includes information for those who started applications, but didn’t finish them. Also, the 2016 data is only available at the summary level (OPM started collecting individual data in 2017). Therefore, it is not clear if the change in data collection methodology could have added to the drop in Black finalists from 2016 to 2017, nor is it clear if this change will be part of the IG’s review. 

Yuan’s letters pointed out the decline in the percentage of Black finalists after 2017 coincided with the switch to the online assessment, though OPM would not comment on any possible connection. Applicants used to have to physically travel to a testing facility for the assessment, which looks at individuals’ communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving ability and public service appetite, said Federal News Network, which first reported on the data and letter from OPM. 

“The adverse impact of the PMF assessment process is of great concern because the program is a pathway to federal leadership,” one of Yuan’s letters said. “In fact, 10% of all Senior Executive Service members are alums of the program. Thus, an assessment process that disproportionately rejects Black applicants could mean federal leadership will lack Black leaders for decades to come.” 

While changes to the assessment process from 2016 to 2017 coincide with the transition from the Obama to Trump administrations, it’s not clear how or if the presidential transition impacted the new process or the composition of the application pool. 

The OPM IG office declined to deny or confirm any ongoing reviews of the program’s assessment process.