Prestigious federal fellows program mistakenly sends acceptance emails to 300 applicants who were rejected

EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds of the nation’s top graduate students who applied for a prestigious program that grooms future leaders of government agencies are fuming after bumbling bureaucrats emailed them acceptance letters by mistake.

The Presidential Management Fellows program, which counts among its alumni former NASA head Sean O’Keefe and onetime Social Security Administration Commissioner Kenneth Apfel, blamed an “administrative error” for the January blunder. Applicants to the program whose initial elation turned to confusion and then disappointment after the series of emails blasted the program, which is administrated by the federal Office of Personnel Management.

“As someone who is dedicated to public service, I was really excited when I was named a finalist, and devastated when OPM told me the next day that I was not actually a finalist,” one applicant told “However, I may have dodged a bullet, because this incident really highlights the incompetence, inefficiency, disorganization and lack of accountability of the PMF program.”

The highly competitive, two-year program places top graduate students in federal agencies including the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, Homeland Security and the Pentagon. Candidates must be nominated by their schools and undergo a rigorous assessment process that includes written and face-to-face interviews. The fellowship, established by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 by executive order, bills itself as a “flagship leadership development program“ for the federal government.

Last month, just 628 out of 9,077 initial applicants and 1,186 semi-finalists were chosen for the program’s class of 2012, putting them on the fast track to leadership roles in federal agencies. Twenty-five percent, or about 300, of the semi-finalists mistakenly received acceptance letters, according to Angela Bailey, the OPM’s associate director of employee services. Bailey said officials moved quickly once they realized their mistake.

“Within minutes, we realized some semi-finalists received erroneous notifications,” Bailey said.  “The PMF Program Office immediately stopped the notifications and investigated the problem.”

But the bungling, similar to a screw-up last month by Vassar College, which mistakenly sent acceptance letters to rejected candidates, left applicants bitter. Some got both rejection and acceptance letters within hours or even minutes, leaving them confused and, ultimately, crushed. One applicant who did not want her name used received three separate emails from the program, which she disclosed to

The first email came on Jan. 23 at 4:57 p.m. and stated:  “We have now completed the assessment process and regret to inform you that you are not among those selected as a Finalist for the PMF Class of 2012.”  Six minutes later, she received another message: “Congratulations! As of January 24, 2012, you have been selected as a Finalist for the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program1920s Class of 2012 and are now eligible for appointment as a Fellow. Best wishes and much success in your search for an appointment as a Fellow.”

The applicant said she initially only saw the second email, and was euphoric as she contemplated moving to Washington and taking a position in the gilded federal bureaucracy. But then, nearly 24 hours later, she received another email, one that felt like a kick in the stomach.

“We appreciate your interest in the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program. We have completed the assessment process and regret to inform you that you are not among those selected as a Finalist for the PMF Class of 2012.  This serves as your official notice. There is no appeal process for those not selected as Finalists.”

As the confusing sequence unfolded, applicants turned to the fellowship’s Facebook page and a blog devoted to the program for answers -- and to vent. Hundreds of comments were posted Jan. 23 and the next day, chronicling the applicants’ Uncle Sam-sponsored roller-coaster ride.

And while Bailey, of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, told “within minutes we realized some Semi-Finalists received erroneous notifications,” the confusion continued to play out for another 24 hours for the 300 applicants who’d received both acceptance and rejection emails from the federal agency.

“Why were some individuals receiving both acceptance & rejection emails while others just received one or the other and still others never received anything at all? Inquiring minds -- quite anxious inquiring minds, that is.............” wrote one Facebook user.

“Is there anyone that only received a rejection letter? I know that is a sensitive question but I'm wondering if the people that got accepted only received an acceptance letter and the people that got rejected received an acceptance letter and a rejection letter,” said another.

The final note sent to candidates who were accepted by mistake cited an “administrative error” that “resulted in some semi-finalists receiving multiple notices with conflicting information.”

“For those who received erroneous notices, we apologize for the uncertainty this may have caused you,” the form letter stated, adding that the Office of Personnel Management “is working with its service providers on quality control measures to ensure accurate communication is used in future correspondence.”

That statement provided no solace for the applicants affected.

“I wonder if those in the PMF office have any idea how heart-wrenching it is for applicants to deal with such uncertainty. For a program focused on management, it seems kind of strange that they seem to have information management /communications problems every year,” one person wrote online.

Another was more blunt: “I wish they'd get their [act] together.”