PMF: Presidential Management Fellowship — or Frustration?

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!

Donna Dyer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Julie Chase

This year, none of our applicants with prior federal service made it into the interview round (except our veterans).

And that is why it was changed to Pathways. Sure money/funding had something to do with it (and this includes all special program hiring not just PMF). The fact is “veterans preference” …..that will not change as all the intern, STEP, STEM, Pathways have been required to hire, employ, select veterans right off the top.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

I agree with your option number 1 – PMFs should be categorized into occupational groupings. Not sure about number 2, but I hate to burden universities with the vetting process.

I would recommend that OPM remove one barrier to agencies who want to hire PMFs (and we need MORE PMFs!) – eliminate the $7,000 fee that agencies need to pay OPM for each PMF hire.

Having been a PMF coordinator for my agency, I can tell you that PMFs are some of the most capable, dedicated, engaged employees. We can never have enough of them!

Chaeny Emanavin

We got three employees through the graduate program and they were excellent. Then senior management cut the program. One left when she couldn’t be offered a full time position and the other two might be leaving as they are performing well above their current 7/9/11 ladder. Both are performing better than some of the 13/14 in our organization, but since we have no way to promote someone who is worthy, they have to look elsewhere for 13/14 positions. So sustainability and having a clear and attractive career ladder is a huge problem.

The other issue is the actual selection process/technology used. The algorithms used by most agencies to select candidates must be seriously flawed. It seems well qualified people are left out all the time. Moreover, the structure of the application forms rewards people for exaggerating. If someone ranks themselves honestly as a 9, they are still very capable to do the job. However, they won’t even get a call in favor of someone who just gave themselves all 10s (even if they really are a 7 in skills). So, these latter folks get the interviews while the formers don’t even get past the HR desk. This is a huge issue I see with the government.

Great article. I don’t mean to sound too negative, but you raise a serious flaw with government hiring that must be fixed if we expect a new, skilled generation of public servants to stick with government service.

I agree, have the universities select only a few. Is it more work? Yes. But this will bring the prestige back and ensure that only really qualified and interested candidates are included. This give OPM time they need to do a proper job of reviewing and selecting candidates.


Great post – I’m a big believer that government should be leveraging the great applicants that aren’t finalists. How can we re-route semi-finalists (and others that don’t make pass first round) into applicants for other entry level jobs?

Julie Chase

Govloop… you can’t. All programs…the old…(STEP…and other intrn programs) the revamped (Pathways) including the PMF are not exempt from vet preference hiring. OPM is keenly aware of this. Is is sad many highly qualified grads get passed over? Yes and they move on to the private sector. My DH reminds me… “civil service was established primarily for vets”. And truth be told…in this political climate…that is not going to change. It is what it is.

Julie Chase

David. Thank you. Not bashing…just trying to explain. Federal statute. Yes that is what I was looking for. I can’t help the way you think of me and I do appreciate your working to set the record straight.

Donna Dyer

Great discussion–I’m frustrated for my students because everyone appreciates veteran preference and the protection that a union provides, but there has to be a crack in the door for eager future civil service leaders who are not veterans or current employees. Otherwise, we’re missing a whole generation of folks who will get accustomed to the consulting salaries and never enter public service. I just can’t believe it’s an either-or situation.

David Dean

Insofar as veteran preference is concerned the genie cannot be placed backed in the bottle. Within the current Obama Administration wherein 40 of us we allowed to die from unconcern by the Department of Veteran Affairs employees it is a fact in being the Obama Administration is not going to commence an attack on veteran preference by any means. The 40 veteran deaths were voluntary manslaughter, reckless disregard for human life. Probably Cause exist to arrest is there. We can only hope that those that are guilty are convicted in a court of law. They have been convicted in the court of public opinion. For the ones that wish to return to school selection of Presidential Management Fellows, that will not happen. The government was in the position of allowing a private entity to select employees the federal government will hire. This is a violation of the merit principle and Prohibited Personnel Practices, and veteran preference.

Most students would not allowed to enlist in the Armed Forces of the United States. They would meet the physical standards, or the mental standards. Therefore, it would be useless to direct them to the local Armed Forces Recruiting Stations. Many of you wish veteran preference would go away. Do you expect veteran preference to disappear? I do not.

WE (veterans) were denied the right to our preference by Agencies using the so-called Outstanding Scholar Program, most were neiher outstanding nor scholars, remember the degree mill period. Remember the Federal Intern Program. Neither exist today. At the present challenges to the Presidential Management Fellow program and the other offshoots are being pursued in the Merit Systems Protect Board and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Your students are not special. They are individuals looking for a short cut to federal hire. If you do not agree with veteran preference, change federal law. Allow me to leave you with a question; how to “leverage”.i.e., provide special treatment to students without violating various federal statutes?

Chaeny Emanavin

David. Thank you for your service to our country. I don’t think anyone here means to minimize the courage and sacrifice of our military. I don’t think anyone is questioning the intent of the veteran’s preference program. I have been passed up for several jobs because there was an equally qualified veteran and I never get upset about it. VP was put into place because veterans returning from wars found it harder to get hired in private industry. VP levels the playing field. I don’t think that is a bad thing.

What is a problem is that it isn’t clear how to get young people coming out of HS, college, vocational schools, etc. into sustainable public service jobs. Coming in as an intern is fine, but if private industry pays significantly higher salaries and has easier to understand career paths, then we will continue to lose excellent people.

I studied at National Defense University in the Advanced Management Program (41) and have seen first hand our military’s dedication to intellectual excellence. The research from our military has advanced private and public industries in innumerable ways. The collective intelligence of our fighting women and men is one of the greatest advantages the American military has over any other military. So, outstanding scholar programs both military and civilian have a critical place in our system.

The crux of the problem, IMHO, is that so many systems have been created to level the playing field that they actually make it less fair. The selection criteria for jobs, fellowships and leadership programs is not transparent. It makes it hard for someone to break into government service when they don’t know what experience and skills will get them noticed.

It’s tough for HR too because many business managers don’t have a clear idea what skills will actually make a hire into a successful employee. There is no “handbook” for employee development because the federal government does not promote people past their current career ladder. Unless you’re in a multiple GS (GS-13/14) type ladder, there is no way to go from say a GS-12 to a GS-13 unless you apply for another position….often at another agency. This is insane and makes is hard to keep good people because you can’t promote them!

In private industry, they use several interview and selection techniques to make sure they hire someone who can do the job….even if they don’t have the experience/education that you’d expect for the position. For example, I know of one company that hired a project manager who spent his first 25 years on a farm. He didn’t have typical industry experience, but by managing the farm he displayed the ability to manage several different, complex activities at once. Also, this company does several rounds of phone interviews and has candidates do a real time exercise before coming in for an in-person interview. This helps them be sure the person can do the job before they even get to the interview phase.

The State of California has a standard entrance exam to show a level of competency before applying for jobs. If you have extenuating circumstances, then they can account for that. This ensures they get people who can do the job or have the ability to learn to do the job despite disadvantages in education, opportunity, etc.

The Federal system lacks transparency that is critical to fairness. It lacks some of the more innovative screening steps to find the abilities in “non-typical” candidates. It lack clear, uniform career development programs government wide. Unless we start doing some of these things, government will have problems holding onto millennials and coping with staffing.


What’s tough is I’ve found this conversation is just really tough to have (as seen on this thread) even though most people probably agree with the intent. The failure is about execution.

My biggest item is that I think we fail to implement veterans preference correctly. In the end, it’s only 5 points but if we don’t tally the other factors real closely everyone bunches up

A MPA from Michigan with 3+ years experience, 3.8 GPA and great interview + is a veteran should beat and get the job over a MPA Minnesota with 3+ years experience, 3.9 GPA and is not veteran

But A MPA from University of Phoenix with a 3.2 with a 2 years experience + veterans preference shouldn’t beat a MPA from Duke with 3.8 GPA and three years experience + veterans preference

Chaeny Emanavin

Right! There has to be an element of performance in it too. The person with the MBA, 2 years of experience and excellent performance reviews should be considered a higher potential candidate than an MBA with 8 years of experience and middling performance reviews.

I get rewarding loyalty, but we shouldn’t put mediocre performers into leadership positions just because they’ve “been there longer”.

Julie Chase

A MPA from University of Phoenix with a 3.2 with a 2 years experience + veterans preference shouldn’t beat a MPA from Duke with 3.8 GPA and three years experience + veterans preference.

They won’t. Now take that same sentence and put non-vet MPA from Duke with a 3.8 GPA and 3 yrs. experience vs the vet with an MPA from UoPhonenix with 2 yrs. experience and former will get an NoR eligible but not referred. It is what it is.

Donna Dyer

I agree that “it is what it is”, but I think I’m going to keep complaining about it. Isn’t there a way to help veterans get appropriate positions in federal government–based on their competencies and experience–and also help young people break into federal government as well? It doesn’t seem mutually exclusive to me in concept, just in execution as GovLoop says below. Thanks to everyone for keeping this conversation going.

David Dean

My service to the country is not the issue. The service of young veterans is the issue. Keep in mind 85% of federal job do not require a college degree. One can qualify on experience, education or a combination of education and experience.

I find these discussions amusing. The discussions always result in someone’s opinion of what should be, or could be. I am not worried that veterans preference will undergo change in the foreseeable future. The federal hiring procedure cannot place more value on one degree as a greater value that another degree. A degree from an Ivy League, in the federal hiring procedure, does not carry any more weight than a degree from the University of Phoenix. I can readily think of a number of statutes and government wide regulations the offending Agency would violate. It “ain’t” going to happen. There is three type of veterans points 5 points, 10 points and 10 points compensable. In on May 11, 2010 the current administration introduced category ranking. Category Ranking is simple enough for me to understand. It has three categories, for writing ease one, two, and three. One is the lowest and three is the highest. A 30% or more disabled, 10 points compensable disabled veteran will float to the top of the list in the highest (three) category. Once this happens the agency must petition OPM to pass over the veteran. The passover has to be for cause. The Agency has to notify the veteran and allow the veteran 30 days to file an objection. OPM will very seldom allow this to happen. If the OPM allows the passover a Merit Systems Protection Board will will be filed, and it can possibly go top the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Veterans preference is correctly implemented under Merit Systems Protection Board case law and Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit case. The law is settled. The next step is the US Supreme Court. Performance is not a factor, nor can it be, in initial hiring. Finally, equally qualified is not a factor in veteran preference. The veteran has to only meet minimum qualifications.

Peter Sperry

OPM statistics for 2013 indicate veterans made up 40% of all new hires. If my math is correct, this would mean non veterans got the job 60% of the time. Maybe it would help to spend more time identifying and emulating the non veterans who made it through the system and less worrying about how to overcome VP. The vets earned their preference and there are still more than enough jobs remaining for non vets.

Julie Chase

I have to ask “what are appropriate positions” for veterans? The 40% new vet hires are in hangers (aircraft), shipyards, facilitates maintenance, gov fleet maintenance and most blue collar WG jobs. It is white collar jobs where vets go lacking and this is where the imbalance comes in. I knew it didn’t matter where the vet got the degree……as long as minimal qualifications have been met. I am helping a young vet navigate USA Jobs. .he has been 10 pts qualified. Thank you David Dean for explaining how that works. I was unsure. I am also working with a 20 retiree vet who will be retiring in a few months. The other person I am working with is a non vet…two college degrees in the STEM field. I was honest with recent grad stating the two vets will be employed before him. The retiring vet does have a degree from Phoenix however it’s in management. Pathways recent grad is an option for the vet and non vet. However the vet has 6 yrs to complete the degree and non vet if not selected will age ot of the program after 2 yrs. David Dean correct any errors on this as I would like to give them the correct information.

Peter Sperry

Julie, if the number of retired O-5s and O-6s in GS-15 and SL slots is any indication, vets are more than well represented in white collar jobs. Every federal building in DC could open its own separate O-club. We just hired a young non vet away from another agency. He graduated in 2007 from a school in Va. where he was able to get into DC often and learn the system. He also is very patient and very persistent. We were hiring off the merit promotion list so VP was not a factor (we made sure to have HR check). I am not sure how he got his initial job but clearly, many young people are making it through.

Julie Chase

Peter..that’s in DC and typical. Im talking outside the land of Oz. GS15 are not given out like candy to non vets or vets here. A college grad with a BS degree is entry level as a GS-5. Yes my dear a GS-5. A BS degree in engineering right out of school starts as a GS 7…if you are lucky a 9 if you work for our tenant command (Navy). Most of tje vet New hires here go into the airframe apprentice program which varies according to funding and is not offered by our command (MC). We are experiencing a retirement tsunami and a hiring feeze all at the same time. Real world civil service right here. White collar jobs up high in the food chain are hard to come by there ate very few. Not all fed workers are in DC nor aspire to be there.

David Dean

I am attempting to grasp why Ms. Dyer is complaining. She has identified herself as being connected with placement of college students into federal jobs and is frustrated. Apparently she disagrees with the veteran preference statutes, MSPB case law and CAFC case law. Is placing college students into federal jobs a function she is paid by the college to achieve?

Peter Sperry

“Not all fed workers are in DC nor aspire to be there.”

Yes and many applicants have not completed a tour of duty in the military nor aspire to do so. Others have not completed college nor aspire to do so. An unbelievable number of applicants have not checked all the boxes or filled in all the blanks on USAJobs nor aspire to do so. But those who are serious about entering and advancing in a federal career do as many of these as possible. Many of us in “Oz” as you disparage it, would much rather live in the Carolinas with a more relaxed pace of life. but we chose to pay the price to EARN the higher grades (No they are not given out like candy). Many in the Carolinas would rather have the larger income and great range of job opportunities available in DC but they choose to forego career opportunities for quality of life. Choices have consequences and actions (or lack thereof) produce results. You make your choices, you take action, or not, and you live with the results. If you do not like the results, change your choices. But don’t complain that you cannot have the best of both worlds.

Julie Chase

You are right Peter. I would gladly skip the dog eat dog….overpriced housing and crime to live and work under a Carolina blue sky. I believe the rub here is……as while those of us in Kansas are “doing more with less”…..OZ continues to build the Emerald City. And it is true that some choose a tour of duty in the military and as the federal statute reads they get first crack at all fed jobs. Yes the gov wants the best and brightest. ….but not all want follow the yellow brick road. I retire in less than 6 yrs….. I’m good with that as I am at the short end of my service. My DHAKA retired 2 yrs ago (AF vet) under CSRS WG10 ……so all is good. The only thing is…..the young people here are leaving and are not interested in fed service for reasons mentioned earlier. When we “had” a STEP back in ’08….the students flat out said there is no way they would work here at installation for GS-5 pay when they could go to the private sector in Charlotte. .Atlanta..Raleigh and make a lot more. For us “funding” Pathways is a problem. Not every agency has this
program…because the money has to come from somewhere. But to hear it out in the media every agency has this program up and running. There haven’t been any gov recruiters at any of the colleges or universities in eastern NC. The article writer seemed to be misinformed about tbe ease at which her students could enter these “re camped” programs. Mr Dean has explained it quite clearly. It is what it is. She should focus her students toward the private sector companies west of I95. They are hiring.

Donna Dyer

Hey, I appreciate all the comments, but the tone is getting unproductive. I think that smart young people are choosing to forego federal service because they cannot get through the screening process to get interviewed. Not because they don’t want to work in federal government and not because they are unqualified. I don’t disagree with veterans preference. I just wish there were room for both veterans and young people in the hiring process, because as a career counselor I have students who are interested and because as a taxpayer I believe a great federal workforce needs to have fresh ideas that young people bring.

Julie Chase

At my installation interviews are rare. What happens in tbe screening process is all the vets are culled from the non vets. Then the vet pool is sorted by points and/or vet disability. Then the cert list is sent to the hiring official. If the hiring official says send me 10 candidates. He/she will get 10 candidates. If all 10 candidates are vets with minimal qualifications. ..one of the team will get a call from San Diego or Norfolk telling them they got the job. The others will be notified as will all the college students that a selection was made and tbey didn’t get the job. No interview. Open and shut. Now other agencies may do interviews. ..but the process is the same. If the hiring official gets 10 candidates and number 6 graduated from Duke with a 3.8 GPA and 3 yrs experience and is a non vet….he/she will have to pray that the 5 vets turn down the job. As of right now there is no other way. In Pathways if a vet applies say for an engineering job and just started college after getting out of the military…he/she has 6 yrs to complete the degree. A non vet who is also applying for an engineering degree and applied for Pathways may not be selected over the vet if there is only one position available and the non vet will graduate with a full engineering degree less than a year vs the non vet who just started his/her college journey. This is how the playing field has been leveled. This is for new hires. I know this is not going to help your students….but as things wind down in Afghanistan. …young troops and near mil retirees will be flooding fed job market. Remember they have 6 yrs to get a degree if the want a white collar job. If the wish to follow the trades….ships..subs and aircraft refit or gov fleet maintenance or facilitates maintenance. …these jobs will be a shoe in for any vet that wants it….as the trades are going begging. I will give you an idea. A young non vet that worked with my DH in aircraft refit was going to night school to get his engineering degree. It took him a bit over 5 yrs. Once he got the degree he applied for an engineering job in the next building and got the job. Because vet preference doesn’t apply because he was already in the fed system and the hiring announcement was announced to “current federal employees”.