“When you try and make change happen, that’s not easy,” conceded Steve Hilton, currently on sabbatical from his position as senior advisor for British Prime Minister David Cameron. “There are vested interests, people have different views.”
Hilton, whose formidable reputation in British politics stems largely from his leading role in the rise of Cameron to the leadership of the Conservative Party and eventually the U.K., is certainly no stranger to implementing dramatic change. Under his guidance, Cameron’s governing coalition rapidly implemented austerity measures while moving to promote a “Big Society” concept based on embracing people power.
“It may turn out that today was the day when the coalition’s radical heart stopped beating,” The Economist wrote in March, referring to the announcement that Hilton would take a year’s sabbatical in California.
Hilton, who currently serves as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, framed the decision to move across the Atlantic as personal rather than professional, in order to accommodate his wife Rachel Whetstone, a senior executive at Google.
“Stanford was naturally the first place to look in terms of doing something that was both interesting and useful, and that would help me use my skills and allow me to contribute to the community here,” Hilton said. “I’m absolutely loving being here at Stanford. What’s really striking is the sense of openness, the energy, the entrepreneurial spirit.”
While the Hilton family lived briefly in California before Cameron was elected, Hilton insisted that the pressures of being in government would prevent him from effectively advising Cameron from afar, instead requiring a clean break.
“It wasn’t really remotely feasible for me to try and do my job from here, which is why I took a sabbatical,” Hilton said.
At Stanford, Hilton currently teaches a class, Public Policy 235, that looks at innovation in government, guiding students in developing solutions to real-world issues and turning them into policy.
“I’m trying to complement students’ academic grounding with a more practical understanding of how things really work,” Hilton said. “That’s the basic theme of the course — how to make change happen.”
Hilton’s involvement in the class is certainly appropriate, considering his repeated clashes with a British civil service bureaucracy and his reputation for “blue sky thinking,” but he framed his academic work as one focused on allowing students to channel their energy toward an issue.
“What I see in my students is what motivates me and many other people who work in government or public policy, which is a real desire to make the world a better place,” Hilton said. “[The class] has been incredibly useful for me in seeing some of the mistakes we might have made [and] how to do things better in the future.”
Hilton first formed a close friendship with Cameron in the early 1990s, while both recent Oxford University graduates were working at the Conservative Party Central Office, though he described their relationship in office as “totally professional.”
“When you’re in government you have to focus on the mission you’re trying to accomplish, the ideas you’re trying to turn into real change,” Hilton said.
Hilton’s affiliation with Conservative causes has been both informal and formal in a career that encompassed stints in advertising, marketing and business consulting. He framed his diverse work experience as beneficial for his political endeavors, noting the connection between policies themselves and their effective marketing.
“You need one to achieve the other,” Hilton said. “The thing that drives you forward is [the ability] to change something, to make the world a better place. You can’t do that if you’re not in government. Being in government requires winning elections. Winning elections requires you to persuade people to vote for you.”
The concept of greater popular involvement in government is a particular interest of Hilton’s, and also, given the recent domination of the American political system by corporate influence, a potential area of concern.
“A lot of people do feel excluded from the political process [in the U.S.],” Hilton said. “Political parties don’t necessarily represent the combination of views that they [nominally] hold.”
For Hilton, the manner in which politics has lagged behind other sectors in incorporating technology is both inexcusable and an issue that should prompt bipartisan concern.
“It’s definitely apolitical,” Hilton said. “I think people on the left and the right would agree that it’s a good thing for people to have more power and control of their lives, and I think left and right would agree that it’s a good thing if people are more involved in politics.”
At least part of the solution may, however, come from third-party organizations such as Social Teeth, a political crowd-funding site founded by Elaine Chang ’10. Hilton advises Social Teeth, which he described as “Kickstarter for political advertising.”
“It’s a way of putting political ads in people’s hands so that it’s not just billionaires and super PACs dominating the airwaves,” Hilton said. “I think that is a great example of how technology can make a difference in politics.”
“There are a whole range of issues that the government involves itself in that we really have the ability to rethink,” Hilton added, noting that his experiences at Stanford have made him more optimistic about society’s ability to do so. “It’s not just about politics.”
Hilton, who said he has no set date for when he might return to the U.K., said he hopes his time at Stanford helps to encourage students to challenge existing issues with new solutions. He described his focus as encompassing issues both narrow, such as a winter quarter course he will teach at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design on Bay Area poverty, and broad, like planned research on the “post-bureaucratic age.”
“What we mean by that is how can we rethink the way government works, the way public services are delivered, taking account of the latest thinking in business and technology [and] moving away from the twentiethcentury top-down bureaucratic model,” Hilton said.