From Harvard to Ukraine

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Steve Kelman catches up with a former student whose work has taken him to the front lines of U.S. efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

When I first started teaching at the Kennedy School 45 years ago, most of the graduates of our two-year master's of public policy program went to work in government, typically in the federal government, after graduation. The two most common agencies they got jobs at—because these were agencies doing a lot of hiring then—were the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

Fast forward to today, and the situation has changed a lot. Though we are still called the Kennedy School of Government, government is no longer where most of our grads go. Our largest group of two-year master's graduates, 38% in 2022, go to work for private for-profit companies (mostly consulting firms, often ones that specialize in selling to government). 32% of grads went to work for government, mostly the federal government. (Many of the rest work for non-governmental organizations.) Since 2016 the percentage working for government has been trending up, the percentage in the private sector trending down.

I recently had a conversation with Andrew Vogt, a 2006 graduate of the Kennedy School and former teaching assistant of mine, whom I hadn't been in touch with for a few years but contacted after I saw him post on LinkedIn. Andrew is a pretty rare bird among our graduates, somebody who has worked for the federal government ever since graduation, going on 20 years.

He has spent his career working on the government's efforts to slow or reverse nuclear proliferation. He is currently at DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is in charge of managing the country's nuclear stockpile, where since 2019 he has headed the Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence, which works to thwart smuggling of nuclear materials (most dramatically, but lowest in terms of likelihood, actual nuclear bombs). 

He manages 22 feds directly (and about $200 million annually in funding) for cooperation with 90 countries altogether. A lot of his work consists of capacity building in these countries for detecting smuggling of nuclear materials from those countries and using nuclear forensics to determine where smuggled materials that have been found originally came from. The goal is to stop smuggled material close to the source.

He became a GS-15 in 2013 but is still not in the SES. "There are not a lot of SES positions at NNSA. But there is something about the SES corps that I want to be part of before I finish my career," he told me. But even as a 15, "I love where I am."

Vogt's first job out of college was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. He decided to join the Peace Corps for a combination of international experience and impact. 

"I'd originally said I was interested in Africa, then changed to Eastern Europe in the interview based on advice from the recruiter. Ukraine was a country that at the time very few Americans knew anything about," Vogt said.

As a Jew, I would say the main thing I knew about Ukraine in those days was that they had a big anti-Semitism problem and that many Ukranians had fought with Germany after they invaded Russia during World War II. Vogt was sent to and served in Donetsk, an even more obscure place that recently has been in the news as a victim of lots of Russian bombing. While in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, he learned Russian and some Ukrainian, and met his wife, who was working for an NGO.

When he returned, he got a presidential management fellowship and looked for a job where he could learn project management skills. One of the first opportunities he saw at the PMF site was a job at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an independent agency within the Department of Defense, to  work on what was called the "cooperative threat reduction" program in collaboration with Russia, which was an effort to deal with what at the time was often called "loose nukes," nuclear weapons that it was feared unemployed former Soviet nuclear scientists would sell to malicious third parties or that terrorists would steal from facilities needing security enhancements. When he got the job, I emailed our dean saying this was the best job any graduating student had gotten that year.  This job would also allow him to use his language skills, and he grabbed it. He worked at DOE headquarters until he was sent in 2014, just after he got his current job, to work for three years at our Embassy in Kiev.

His career has had a number of highlights. Perhaps the most-dramatic one was working on the U.S. response to cyberattacks against Ukraine's electricity grid in 2015, the first cyberattack ever on an industrial control system, which was led by Department of Energy and involved a team of experts both from within government (the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Response Team, FBI) and outside subject matter experts (Idaho National Lab, Electric Information Sharing and Resource Center). This involved meetings with the organizations affected and a determination by the team, when publicly available information was limited and the actual events unclear, that there had indeed been a cyberattack on an electrical grid. Because of worries about the vulnerability of electricity systems to cyberattack, as it unfolded this doomsday scenario had high level attention in Ukraine and across the U.S. government. 

"I was responsible for participating in the meetings, logistics, and reporting on the results through embassy channels. So not the most glorious role within the cyber response effort, but very exciting and meaningful to get to spend time with subject matter experts and leading figures in the cybersecurity world," Vogt said.

"When I first went to Ukraine, Russian disinformation was not something widely discussed. I experienced it on the ground—fake news clips, forged reports, what was really daily disinformation. Ukraine was Russia's testing ground for disinformation," which has of course now spread. He also watched the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness. "I have seen Ukrainian identity grow, Language is an important part of that. You hear less Russian now."  

Speaking about Ukraine, Vogt says, "I do think it's critical we support Ukraine in this fight. You have a population that wants true independence and self-determination. So to me it's the most important issue in the world now." But he also notes the country's significant corruption problem. "They have to fight on two fronts, against Russia and against corruption. They need to win the war with Russia to exist as a country, but they also need to win the war on corruption to succeed as a country."

I say the same thing to Andrew as I say to my executive education students in government: "Thank you for your public service."