It’s a long, sordid story, but the moral is simple: Beware what you ask for — you might get it!
A little background: Back in 2007, I was so happy. The Presidential Management Fellowship program office “popped the cap”—they allowed universities to nominate an unlimited number of graduating students for the prestigious PMF program. Previously, we were only allowed to nominate 10% of our graduates, which meant we had a competition for these precious spots. But with this change I could nominate everyone! Our group of MPA/MPP career advisors had asked for this program change more than once, and we finally got it! However, since nobody had to vouch for their school’s nominees or even affirm that the nominees were interested in public service, applications grew exponentially, and OPM became overwhelmed.
Then came the recession, with its huge negative impact on law firm positions for law school graduates. So law school (and other non-MPA) nominees increased by leaps and bounds. More applications meant more overwhelming. To streamline the process, OPM added an online assessment. Then they eliminated the in-person assessment. None of these changes were resulting in the selection of the best future federal government managers and leaders, although I’m guessing the process was more inclusive.
In response to a ruling by the Merit Systems Protection Board in 2010, the PMF program underwent tremendous changes again and became a part of the “Pathways” programs designed for students and recent graduates. The Pathways menu includes internships, a two-year Recent Graduates program and the PMF. While this hiring authority was created in 2011, very few agencies use the Recent Graduates program—today, USAJOBS lists 102 Pathways positions, and 56 of them are in Department of Defense.
The “new” PMF program is now open to all applicants who have graduated from an advanced degree program within two years of the vacancy announcement date. From 2,000 applications to 12,000, with no university staff or faculty screening the applications for quality.
The result for me has been that while many of our students still apply to the PMF, knowing it’s one of the only chances to get into federal service, they no longer feel it’s prestigious. Instead, the PMF has become a long-shot random chance opportunity with a screening exam that can’t identify folks who we know are great potential leaders and managers.
This year, none of our applicants with prior federal service made it into the interview round (except our veterans). A couple of years ago, a career director colleague at another university was completing a PhD and applied, but he didn’t even get an interview. Anecdotal evidence also reveals that agencies are listing fewer PMF positions—partly a function of overall hiring freezes and partly a lack of willingness to pay for the privilege of hiring a PMF.
In no way do I mean to disparage those students selected as PMF finalists. There are many more qualified applicants than there are positions available, and qualified folks are selected. But given the reduced number of available positions, I have two options to recommend to OPM that might make more room for these great public servants.
Option 1: overhaul the PMF program into a slightly larger and more general pool of pre-qualified applicants each year, with possible sub-pools for attorneys, STEM, or other categories. When an agency needs a new entry-level staff person, they could draw from this pool and pay a small fee to OPM. Make the program transparent so students can see the preference points and make an informed decision about whether to apply. Finalists would have special status for federal positions, but would also continue looking for jobs in other sectors.
Option Two: return to the good old days, where universities had to evaluate and nominate a limited number of their best students. I’m sorry I asked to be excused from this task in the first place!
What are your thoughts on the PMF program and process? Please share with me in the comments below!