Dorothea E. de Zafra-Atwell, MPIA


de Zafra-Atwell, DorotheaDirector of Science Education, Senior Program Analyst (Retired)
United States Department of Health and Human Services
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Silver Spring, MD, USA
Industry: Government
Field: Policy and Program Development

Dorothea E. de Zafra-Atwell went into the federal government civil service in 1969 with a strong conviction to make a positive difference in the world. She chose to work with the United States Department of Health and Human Services, where she saw an opportunity to improve the nation’s quality of life. Although unable to view the direct impact her work had on people because it was several levels removed, she nevertheless felt that helping to shape federal policies and programs was really worthwhile. Furthermore, her involvement in a field that was traditionally considered to be male-dominated distinguished her as a pioneering female who capitalized on opportunities and excelled in her positions. Her ability to adapt to various environments was an invaluable asset as she progressed through the ranks of analytical and program management positions in health agencies and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

In 1963 she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Non-Western Civilizations from the University of Rochester, which was followed by a Master of Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in 1965 and a diploma from the Advanced Management Program in Information Resources from the National Defense University in 1994.

After four years in the field of international education, Ms. de Zafra-Atwell took the civil service entrance exam and came into the federal government in 1969 as a management intern. After subsequent positions in legislative and management analysis, she entered the then-new field of information law, holding policy and oversight positions as privacy act officer and information systems security program manager covering all agencies of the United States Public Health Service. Then, in her position as the director of science education for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism from 1995 to 2002, she managed all aspects of the contracting process for the development and field testing of science education curriculum supplements and publications for health professionals related to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Concurrently, she serviced as senior program analyst there.

In addition to her work for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Ms. de Zafra-Atwell has contributed to the publication of several works as a project officer and editor of “Identification of At-Risk Drinking and Intervention with Women of Child-bearing Age: A Guide for Primary Care Providers,” “Identification and Care of Fetal Alcohol-Exposed Children: A Guide for Primary Care Providers,” and “Personal Steps to a Healthy Choice: A Woman’s Guide.” She also authored “A Management Model for the Implementation of Omnibus Legislation: A Case Study from the U.S. Public Health Service,” which was published in the American Society for Public Administration’s May/June 1978 issue of Public Administration Review.

Since her retirement in 2002, Ms. de Zafra-Atwell has married, taken on eldercare responsibilities, and been active in her church and graduate school alumni association. She is still very interested in her field and keeps up-to-date with current events via her membership in the Council of Former Federal Executives and Associates. She is currently an advocate for higher quality eldercare in the United States based on her personal caregiving experience and history as a former employee of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In the near future, she would like to consult on a senior level with a nonprofit organization.

Conversation with Dorothea E. de Zafra-Atwell

Worldwide Publishing: What would you like to promote most about yourself or your business?

Dorothea E. de Zafra-Atwell: The one thing that really helped me advance in my career was my ability to be flexible and use transferable skills in new subject areas. What I mean by transferable skills is what one learns in a school of public administration, such as strategic planning, cross-cultural communication, program development, goal-setting, collaborative team building, and program evaluation. It’s really administrative and management skills that one brings to working relationships with others who are subject matter experts. For example, as information systems security program manager for the United States Public Health Service, I worked successfully with both information technology experts and public health professionals; as director of science education for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, I worked with both research scientists and educational curriculum development specialists. I would like to bring my skill set to a senior consultant role with nonprofit organizations.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?

I went into government to make a difference. John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” I was a member of the generation that was tremendously influenced by him. Throughout my career, I felt I made a difference, but as a civil servant, I [used to] take umbrage at the stereotypical image of the “bureaucrat” that the public generally holds, including a number of my friends. I was proud to be a professional and I worked in the company of others who also saw themselves as career professionals giving their best to the service of the people of the United States. That was tremendously fulfilling and rewarding; it’s a calling, just as a military service career is.

What is your greatest professional accomplishment to date?

It was leading an interagency team to design government-wide training standards in the rapidly-evolving field of computer security, affecting senior management to various job categories relative to information technology systems, to end users. “Information Technology Security Training Requirements: A Role- and Performance-Based Model” was issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1998. Emphasizing role-based training, it is a handbook to address the human weaknesses in security previously identified in Government Accountability Office reports, e.g. “insufficient awareness and understanding of information security risks among senior agency officials,” “poorly designed and implemented security programs,” “a shortage of personnel with technical expertise,” and “limited oversight of agency practices.”

What are your short-term and long-term career goals?

I have two short-term goals. One is to consult for nonprofit organizations and foundations in such areas as organization development or program evaluation. The other is to become an advocate in two [possible] areas: promoting greater attention to better education in civics and the social sciences (not just mathematics and “hard sciences”), or promoting creative aging and better – and affordable – eldercare. Long term, I want to live to be 100 while continuing to create an interesting and meaningful life.

And what specific steps have you taken toward achieving these goals?

I really did not have time to pursue my short-term goals while I was taking care of my mother. I am at the beginning stages of my goals, having recently planned and conducted a workshop on eldercare for family caregivers. I have also joined the Council of Former Federal Executives and Associates to facilitate networking, and I have business cards to market myself for an encore career.

What is the most difficult obstacle or challenge you have faced in pursuit of your goals?

At this point, it’s just devoting time and attention to my retirement goals. The obstacles, when I was employed, were constant budget uncertainties, the interface between career and political appointees, intra-agency competing priorities, and early in my career, overt sexism. But an important responsibility of the career professional in government is to “speak truth to power” respectfully, with thoroughly grounded knowledge to be credible.

On what topics do you consider yourself to be an expert?

Information technology security program management, but my knowledge is now dated in this era of wireless technology and cyberterrorism. I am a very good analyst [regarding] studying legislation, agency missions or programs and structure, and coming up with an assessment, appraisal, or recommendations. I write well, avoiding jargon. I am an experienced trainer of employees, have some knowledge of science education curriculum development and field testing, have advanced workplace diversity programs and collaborative committee management skills.

How do you remain current in your profession? 

I’m a voracious reader and I try to stay up to date in current events. Having come from a government role, I try to stay current and look at implications of events from that perspective. I am very active with the alumni association of my graduate school and [work with] the young people coming up who are currently getting master’s and doctoral degrees – I am empathetic to their job market. I enjoy meeting with current graduate students and mentoring.

What makes you a valuable resource in your industry?

My institutional memory, experience, knowledge, long career in the profession, collegial style and leadership positions in professional associations. I’m still keenly interested in my field, even though I am retired.

What is the most significant issue facing your profession today?

One thing is the need for collaboration across fields and sectors – public and private – because everything is so intertwined and interdependent. You can’t separate the economy from the environment, or from health or education. Things that used to be neatly compartmentalized, you can’t separate anymore. What happens in one area impacts something else because one area gets the money and another area doesn’t; in order to move one area ahead, you have to move other areas as well. Another issue is the problem of serious budget deficits at all levels of government, coming after years of cutbacks in domestic and research programs. As we have seen in the long national debate about healthcare reform, major initiatives can’t be undertaken because they can’t be funded. Not only does this have programmatic consequences, but it can further discourage the best and brightest young people from pursuing public service careers, thus further jeopardizing the quality of the government sector.

What advice can you offer fellow members who work in your industry?

Develop a broad network of contacts and stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.

What advice can you offer people aspiring to work in this profession?

Be a well-rounded student. Seek out cross-cultural experiences and learn a second or third language. In pursuing career mobility, stretch your comfort zone. In this ever-shrinking world, problems and challenges facing governments at all levels are becoming increasingly complex and intertwined, requiring career professionals who have vision, a broad set of skills, and the ability to relate to a variety of specialists and stakeholders.

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about the way government at all levels works or doesn’t work. The private sector is fine, but the emphasis on entrepreneurism needs to be balanced by an equal understanding and enthusiasm for the legitimate role of government and quality public service by career professionals. Everyone understands the contributions that the military services make to this nation; not well understood is the contribution of civilian agencies. I am passionate about improving “civic literacy” and public service. I am also passionate about lifelong learning.

Who have been your mentors or people who have greatly influenced you?

My undergraduate advisor for my senior thesis at the University of Rochester, Dr. Vera Micheles Dean. At The University of Pittsburgh, two professors, Dr. Michael Flack and Dr. Daniel Cheever also greatly influenced me. I credit both of my parents, Carlos and Dorothea de Zafra, who were ahead of their time in encouraging their “career girl.”

What is your favorite quote?

 “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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