Ronald Sanders spent 37 years in federal service focused on the people of government—working to bring about big organizational changes and reform personnel practices to make agencies more effective and responsive to the public.
His long list of exceptional accomplishments in the human resources arena will leave a government-wide imprint for years to come and will inform future efforts to improve the federal civil service.
Known as a man who did not shy away from difficult and often controversial challenges, Sanders has been instrumental in significant governmental transformations dealing with the operation of the intelligence community, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Senior Executive Service (SES).
“He has been an incredibly creative and energetic individual,” said Robert Tobias, former president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “He has had ideas and approaches that others had not conceived let alone tried, but he was always motivated to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal organizations.”
In the five years before he retired in February 2010, Sanders was the chief human capital officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and in this role crafted the intelligence community’s groundbreaking civilian joint duty program. The program requires senior career leaders from the 17 separate intelligence units, as a prerequisite for promotion, to work in jobs outside their own agencies so they can acquire a broad, enterprise-wide perspective.
Sanders successfully pushed for a common performance-sensitive pay system and instituted a first-ever multi-agency performance evaluation process that reinforces and rewards information sharing and collaboration among the diverse and sometimes competing intelligence agencies. He also led the intelligence community’s breakthrough efforts to reach out to and recruit first- and second-generation Americans to its ranks, one of his passions as a first-generation Arab-American.
Stephen Ramp, who worked with Sanders at ODNI, said his colleague often met resistance and “locked horns” with senior executives in the intelligence community as he sought to implement the joint duty system and other programs designed to change the culture and create more collaboration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“He is a persistent guy and when he gets hold of something, he has a firm grip,” said Ramp. “But he can be very creative in dealing with objections and concerns, and looks to find a third way to make things work. He understands how complex organizations operate and is a master of managing through those channels.”
When Congress mandated a restructuring and reform of IRS in the late 1990s, Sanders was recruited to be part of the transformation team, helping leverage a breakthrough labor-management partnership to successfully realign the entire 120,000-person workforce from a geographic-based structure to a new one organized around taxpayer groups.
This reorganization altered job functions and resulted in the turnover of a number of senior executives who had been asked to compete for new positions. Those who competed successfully as well as the newly hired senior managers provided a fresh vision and energy to the restructured IRS. Sanders also developed and implemented rigorous employee standards for customer service and taxpayer treatment, enabling the IRS to better fulfill its mission.
Sanders later worked at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where he led the design and implementation of the new pay-for-performance system for the SES, the most sweeping change to the executive service since its inception three decades earlier. While at OPM, he was also instrumental in the formation and development of personnel policies for DHS when it was created in 2003.
Sanders said he has always been motivated by “public service and giving back to the country.” He said his focus on the job was to “bring human capital strategies and policies to bear on meeting organizational objectives” and to “make sure people in the organizations are taken care of, rewarded and supported.”
“I have learned that small victories and incremental changes ultimately lead to transformational change,” said Sanders. “You have to keep picking away. You need to be relentless, and then the small victories add up and you get critical mass and bring about the change the public expects.”
David Walker, the president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the former comptroller general of the United States, described Sanders as “a creative transformational change agent” who realized that in government, you need to “move beyond personnel and human resources to a more strategic approach.”
“Change management is very difficult and there is always pushback,” said Walker. “Ron is very professional and he was willing to take risks to achieve change.”