We the Partnership

The Sammies series: Q&A with Maximus and a Sammies finalist at the State Department creating public-private partnerships

December 15, 2020

As managing director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships, Thomas Debass leads the creation of public-private partnerships to advance America’s national interests and promote economic growth and sustainable development around the world. Since 2008, the Office of Global Partnerships has engaged with more than 1,600 private sector partners and mobilized more than $1.7 billion to launch initiatives to advance entrepreneurship and innovation, women’s and youth empowerment, religious freedom and human rights, leadership development and environmental sustainability globally. These efforts made Debass a 2020 Service to America Medals finalist in the Safety, Security and International Affairs category.

Lisa Veith, senior vice president new market growth at Maximus, which partners with state, federal and local governments to provide communities with critical health and human service programs, spoke with Debass about his experience working for the federal government and the importance of public service.

Veith: Why is public service important to you?

Debass: Public service is the engine that drives America’s leadership around the world. It is the dedication of our American public servants, domestic and abroad, that shapes how America is viewed globally, and most importantly, how we engage with the world. That is my lens and how I have experienced public service in this country, from graduate school and early on in my career, and throughout my adult life. I believe this is what America is about. That is why I think it’s important for the youth to be exposed and engaged with public service.

Veith: Why did you choose a career in public service?

Debass: In college, I studied international development and economics, but public service was never my dream or my plan. When I finished graduate school, I was working in Africa for a couple of months, but when I came back home, 9/11 happened.  There was this aura of collective unity in the United States that inspired me to think, “How can I contribute at this time? What can I, as an American, do for this country?” Since December 2001, I’ve been a civil servant, serving in several different capacities.

Veith: What are your proudest accomplishments as a public servant?

Debass: I’ve had the honor and the privilege of working in different agencies, from OPIC[1] to USAID[2] and now at the U.S. Department of State. My proudest moments always occur when I witness diplomacy in action as a team sport. When Americans come together to represent the United States in the most positive light, I get goosebumps.

You travel around the world and see the types of projects and partnerships that we’ve created—not just with taxpayer resources, but with help from the private sector and philanthropy. I’m always inspired by Americans’ generosity and our institutions’ global engagement. When I see those partnerships, I think America’s uniqueness stands out. When our private sector and public sector come together, the country puts its best foot forward.

Veith: During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have come to realize just how much the federal government impacts their lives. How can we cultivate more appreciation of government—and government employees—even when the country is not facing a national crisis?

Debass: The current crisis is a truly global crisis and I think the broader public recognizes that the federal government plays a crucial role in the response systems we need. I hope people realize that public service helps protect America and keeps the country going. The men and women who work in these government agencies have jobs that help maintain our entire system, infrastructure and the American way of life.

Veith: Why should a recent graduate consider a public service career?

Debass: I hope the pandemic crisis becomes the inflection point for people to say, “I want to be a part of the solution.” When you are coming out of college and looking for a challenge and a mission that goes beyond your own personal gain, public service enables you to create a better America, and ultimately contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous world. This is one of the most patriotic acts we can engage in – to dedicate ourselves to public service. And our young people are a lot more globalized, a lot more connected and a lot more driven. My hope is that they bring that zeal, energy and youthfulness to public service.

Veith: What is one misconception about public service work that you would like to dispel?

Debass: It’s this idea of the word “bureaucracy.” People think public servants are “bureaucrats” in that they do less work and are not driven at all. That’s not my experience. I have never met more dedicated, more patriotic people than public service, and I’ve worked at several different agencies, been around the world and seen how government operates in many places. The talent, drive and quality of people that reside within our agencies is incredible. People should think twice about characterizing public servants as less driven than private sector workers. That’s the biggest misconception. All these different agencies power our lives – from ensuring the safety of the latest vaccines to strengthening our global relations and national security – and people should recognize that it’s public servants that make this possible.

Read Thomas Debass’ Service to America Medals profile for more on his work building public-private partnerships, and visit Maximus to learn about the organization’s work. For more on this year’s Sammies virtual awards program, read Inspiring Stories from this year’s Service to America Medals.

Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.

This post is part of a series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity by Cora Martin, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.


[1] Overseas Private Investment Corporation

[2] U.S. Agency for International Development