New State partnerships head: ‘We are the traffic controllers’

At the swearing in of Special Representative Drew 'OBrien (left), Secretary of State John Kerry called him a 'great convener.' O'Brien now leads State's Global Partnerships Initiative. Photo: Department of State Global Partnership Initiative.

The State Department’s Global Partnership Initiative has said good-bye to its first leader, Kris Balderston, and welcomed its second Special Representative, Drew O’Brien. O’Brien inherits a portfolio of partnerships that includes the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance and Accelerating Market-Driven Partnerships, among others.

In a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony in June, Kerry described O’Brien as a “problem solver” with a “great capacity to convene people.” Kerry described how O’Brien frequently acted as his surrogate when Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator, was unable to be present in person.

“His job now is going to be to leverage, globally, businesses, universities, nonprofit organizations and all the various folks who have as-yet-unleveraged ability to help make a difference in public opinion and in the course of events,” said Kerry, to whom O’Brien reports directly.

Devex Impact talked with O’Brien about the experience he brings to his role from Massachusetts, his big questions about partnership, and his priorities for the future.   

Tell us about yourself: How have your leadership roles in state government and higher education in Massachusetts prepared you for this new role at the State Department?

For 20 years, I had different staff roles and leadership roles in public life. I worked in municipal and state government, at the University of Massachusetts, and in the Senate with Senator Kerry. Through those roles I had a unique opportunity to impact people’s lives, whether it was through basic city service or by offering education to non-traditional populations.

This opportunity is not dissimilar. It’s a leadership role that gives me the ability to impact people’s lives.

What is exciting to you about the idea of public-private partnerships for development and diplomacy?

I believe strongly in government, but government can’t do everything. And because of funding trends, whether that’s sequestration or austerity, we have to be creative and constructive in how we solve problems.  

Public-private partnerships may seem like a new idea, but they have been going on for a long time. Massachusetts has robust areas of expertise, including higher education and health care. When I was working with Senator Kerry, we did partnerships with those industries to help people. For example we were able to work with the Red Sox Foundation and Mass General Hospital to provide help for veterans with traumatic brain injuries. This kind of partnership work goes by more than one name.

What lessons did you take away from partnership-building in Massachusetts?

We should understand our limits and not be ashamed of them. Limits occur in business and in government, whether those limits are around finances or human resources or time. Embracing your limits enables you to find others who can help. You can build consensus and solve problems together.

What professional skills in partnership do you bring to this new role?

The thing I try to bring is knowing what I don’t know. I’m not shy about asking questions.  I’ve prefaced many statements here at the State Department with, “Here comes another dumb question…”  I’ve gotten past the point in my career where I’m intimidated by people who know more than I do. Those are the most valuable people, and I want to learn from them.

What are the big questions about global partnerships you’re asking right now?

The biggest thing I’m trying to understand right now is how the world is looked at through the eyes of the State Department. It happens through the bureaus, the desks and in the field through the embassies.

Through that lens, I see the role of corporations in a new way. Globally, they touch so many lives and do a lot to help on the edges of life all over the world. A lot of them are doing good work very quietly. That, for me, has been a revelation: That every partner can be a good partner. 

Times of austerity has forced us into those partnership discussions in a quicker and more substantial way than might have happened otherwise, but it is happening, and in reality, we all need each other. Government needs corporations to help solve problems. And the people we’re trying to help need all of us.

What is Secretary Kerry’s vision for global partnerships?

I’ve seen first hand how much Secretary Kerry cares about people, not only as groups, but as individuals with specific problems.  That’s been an infectious passion, one that’s carried over to me. He believes in bringing in disparate opinions from different industries in order to solve problems.

What is exciting to you about the Global Partnership Initiative’s current portfolio of projects?

I’ve been very interested to learn about how we’re supporting the sale of solar-powered products through market networks in Africa.  Using these markets is a way of empowering women through their own social culture networks. It helps communities and gives individuals a better life.  It’s a pretty remarkable model.

That was another light-bulb moment for me. These things are not hand outs; we are empowering other people to do good by doing well.  

What are the remaining challenges in terms of mainstreaming the partnership model at State?

It has to become something that people think about every day. It has to become part of the vernacular. We are building momentum and consensus around the idea that we can’t solve everything ourselves, but that we can bring the right people together.

For example, Secretary Kerry has talked about water. That is a vast, vast issue. Every person you ask about it will give you a different answer. And you know what? All of those answers may be correct. Water is a women’s issue, a health issue, an economic empowerment issue. Maybe our Lions Africa initiative can play a role. Maybe clean cookstoves are part of the solution, in terms of safety and health.

The question is really how we integrate these initiatives and approaches.  We have to get away from a siloed approach and track results so we find what brings success.

What are your priorities for the Global Partnership Initiative going forward?

My priorities are very much in line with the secretary’s, and they include water, health and climate change. The secretary is also very engaged on issue of population and youth. But we won’t be focusing on those issues at the expense of what has already been done.

For our existing partnerships, we need to institutionalize them within the building, to make sure those ideas and initiatives have their rightful place. We’re an initiatives office, an incubator. We come up with ideas that others can integrate.

What role does the Global Partnerships Initiative play within the State Department?

It’s simple: If you have a situation you can’t get your head around, either intellectually or in terms of resources, give us a call. We’ll see if there is a way to bring in outside players, like corporations or foundations. That’s what makes us unique. We can leverage resources from outside.

It also happens the other way around. Outside entities approach us, and we plug them into the State Department. Or we see a global issue, and we know a company that could help, and we reach out. When you make a call from the Department of State, people tend to pick up the phone.

So we are the traffic controllers, the conveners.

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About the author

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    Andrea Useem

    As Associate Editor and Content Director for Devex Impact, Andrea creates and manages cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.