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Meet Our Fellows: Dr. Ron Sanders

Fellow Spotlight

By: Ronald Sanders

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Who or what inspired you to work in public service?

Growing up, my parents taught me that we had a duty to ‘give back’ to our country and our fellow citizens. That’s something they practiced first-hand—although my father was an American citizen, he flew lend-lease bombers for the British RAF in North Africa in 1940 before the US even entered WWII, where he met and married my Egyptian mother, brought her back to the States, and promptly went back to war, leaving her to learn English from the movies —and they always reminded me not to take any of our freedoms for granted…and what it takes to preserve them. That was especially the case with my mother, who’d lived in an autocracy in Egypt, as well as with the threat of a German occupation, and she never let me forget just how good we had it as Americans. They set the example of ‘giving back’ for me. To that end, I was always set on a career in uniform, but I graduated from college at the end of the Vietnam War, and when I tried to enlist, the Air Force told me (literally) that they didn’t need me…so I went to work for them as a civilian in 1974. That was my entry into public service.

You didn’t ask, but for what it’s worth, I’m on my fourth public service career and have worked in government, the private sector, and academe, all with a focus on that service. I spent 37 years (almost 39 when you count unused sick leave) as a Federal civil servant, with 21 of those years as a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES). In the middle of that stint, I took a sabbatical to teach public administration, first at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School (where I helped set up China’s National School of Administration) and then at GWU (where I helped the DC government work its way out of receivership). Along the way, I also spent a year as a staffer in the Senate on a congressional fellowship, became the youngest career member of the SES in the Pentagon, and was elected a NAPA Fellow, the latter in 2006.

In theory, I retired from Federal service in 2010—actually from the CIA, but I’d have to kill you if I told you what I did there (just kidding!)—and went to work in the private sector as a VP for Booz Allen; however, all of my clients were in government, mainly in the US but also overseas (among other things, I helped set up the UAE’s cybersecurity and space agencies). I retired for a second time from Booz Allen in 2017 and relocated to the Tampa Bay area in Florida, but folks at the University of South Florida (USF) found me out and asked me to run USF’s School of Public Affairs, an offer I couldn’t refuse, inasmuch as USF was my alma mater way back in 1973. I signed up for a three-year tour, and as that term was expiring last year (and I was intent on retiring for a third time), one of my former bosses—Mike McConnell, whom I’d worked for when he was Director of National Intelligence—was named the head of the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, and he asked me to join him there as his Staff Director. In a fit of madness, I did…and that’s what I’m doing now.

What is something you are excited about right now?

In my current job, one of the things I worry about—indeed, lose sleep over—is the cybersecurity threat our country faces, especially from other nation-states (like Russia and China) and their proxies. I saw that threat first-hand when I was ‘inside’ the US Intelligence Community, and its scarier than even what you read in the popular press. While the US is the most technologically advanced nation in the world, that also makes us the most vulnerable—the headlines remind us of that almost every day, with incidents like Solar Winds and Colonial Pipeline—and one of the things that exacerbates that vulnerability is the ‘talent gap’ between those countries and ours. They’re busy producing ten times the STEM and related graduates as the US (ironically, we train many of them in our country), and unless we turn that around, we’re in for trouble. That’s my main focus at the moment…helping colleges and universities, particularly in Florida, produce more STEM grads for all cyber jobs that are available, and I’m very excited about it.

What is your favorite class you have ever taught or took and why?

I’ve had the privilege of teaching the final MPA ‘Capstone’ course—typically the very last course that MPA students take before we turn them loose to face the ’real world’ of public service—for some storied MPA programs…including the Maxwell School up at Syracuse, GWU in DC, and most recently, as the Director of the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs. In that regard, I’ve always considered myself a ‘pracademic’ who has achieved some success as both a practitioner (at all levels of government) and as an academic, and I’ve always enjoyed sharing those experiences with young people…and then helping them apply the lessons I learned from them to their own careers.

What inspires you during these challenging times?

I’m an eternal optimist, as well as a ‘glass half full’ public servant, and as a consequence, I’ve always believed that Americans—and American government—can solve just about anything if we put our minds to it. And that includes transnational challenges, in part because I believe that we have an obligation to lead the rest of the world, even when it doesn’t necessarily want our leadership. Of course, that means reaching a political consensus first, before government can swing into action, and that’s especially messy these days (democracy always is). However, that give-and-take is necessary (and even fun), and I find the combination of political and administrative dynamics that comprise just about every public policy issue—the ‘classic’ dichotomy that isn’t—to be both challenging and inspiring.

What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?

Be patient and be satisfied with ‘small wins…so long as they can lead to big things. Most young people these days want instant gratification, and that is hard to come by in American public service. Our governments are designed to make public action difficult (that’s the essence of our Constitution), so it takes a lot to build a political consensus for that action. That’s especially the case with regard to BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals). So, I’ve always practiced and preached ‘strategic incrementalism’ (NAPA Fellow Pat Ingraham and I once wrote a paper coining the term)…that means to look for and try to achieve small victories, especially over the inevitable bureaucracies that public servants face, but always with a bigger prize in mind; those small victories may not mean much individually, but if done right, they can add up to something significant. But it takes a lot of patience.

What is your favorite midnight snack?

I’ve been known to sneak the occasional ice cream bar before I go to bed at night.

If you could witness any historical event, what would you want to see?

I would love to be a ‘fly on the wall’ during the debate leading up to and including the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. I think our Founding Fathers were unbelievably prescient, but I also know that we’re taught an idealized version of history, so I suspect that there was quite a lot of behind-the-scenes back-and-forth leading up to our foundational documents. I know how the ‘sausage’ of public policy is made—as I indicated above, I actually enjoy that part of public service—and I’d love to know the ingredients that went into our Constitution.

Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?

Not really. Like most digitally addicted Americans, I get my news via feeds from a variety of sources, virtually all of them electronic, but I also make sure those sources cover the entire political spectrum (I have a ‘thing’ about the insidious influence of single-source mis/disinformation). That said, I do like to keep track of the ‘inner workings’ of government, so I rely on Gov Exec and the Federal News Network, and Fed Times…as well as plethora of internal, way off-the-record HUMINT sources—those who still work in government—who tell me what’s really going on in the 'sausage’ factory.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

The ‘be patient’ advice I described above. I got that from one of my earliest mentors—a grizzled old civil servant boss who taught me more than I could ever imagine—when, as a young and idealistic government employee out to change the world, I expressed frustration to him over how hard it was to get anything done. And while he didn’t use the term, he also taught me about ‘strategic incrementalism’ and how small things can add up to a big thing…especially if you work (often covertly and subtly) towards that bigger something. That’s why I always took great pleasure in achieving small bureaucratic wins, knowing that they were leading towards some larger, better end-state.

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