By James Ball
The UK’s former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has started his new job as vice-president of global affairs and communications for Facebook, after a months-long hiring process led by Mark Zuckerberg and his key lieutenant, Sheryl Sandberg.
Clegg is, though, far from the first figure to depart the UK political scene in favour of the tech giants. In fact, no fewer than 17 former politicians and political advisors now working for tech giants including Google, Facebook, Twitter Uber and Deliveroo, according to a list compiled by Politico.
But what is it that makes them such appealing hires to US tech giants – usually in policy or communications roles – and what is it that makes people willing to depart the political scene for big tech?
To find out, Huffpost UK spoke to a selection of people who’d made exactly that move – and found out it’s not all about the money.
Given tech companies are even more reluctant to allow their employees to speak out publicly than political parties are, most spoke off the record or on background. But their responses reveal just how close the relationship between politics and big tech has become.
“People get into politics because they want to grapple with tough issues and get things done,” said one current tech employee, explaining why for many departing the UK political scene was not much of a loss.
“In tech, the same is true at the moment. There are very few more interesting places to work right now. Tech companies like Uber have been going through a big and much-needed transformation over recent months and Facebook clearly needs to do the same after the events of this year.
“For those whose time at the top of politics is over – moderate Labour, Cameron Tories and Lib Dems – tech is the next best place where they can make a difference. Changes tech companies make can have a big impact on millions of people, for better or worse.”
A new chapter…
You can find a statement and video message from me here: https://t.co/B3pFDuFPr8
— Nick Clegg (@nick_clegg) October 19, 2018
Others made similar arguments in more prosaic terms: if your party – or if you’re an advisor, your minister – leaves government, you need a job, and tech is not only hiring, but is also an exciting area in which to work. It should, that reasoning argues, be no surprise to see people willing to go in that direction.
That’s what we see when we look at who’s gone: two of Ed Balls’ former advisors now work for big tech – Karim Palant in a policy role at Facebook, and Alex Belardinelli in a communications role at Uber. From the Conservative side, Deliveroo employs Thea Rogers, a former advisor to George Osborne, while Amazon has Rishi Saha, a former Cameron aide.
And there are no shortage of Liberal Democrats in tech – in addition to Clegg, Google’s DeepMind AI service employs his former advisor Verity Harding, while Facebook employs Richard Allan, a Liberal Democrat peer. And these are just a small selection of those who’ve swapped sides.
As to why big tech wants people who understand the political scene, this was again argued by several people to be a matter of practicalities: right now almost every minister, regulator, and parliamentary committee wants a piece of big tech.
In recent months companies have been pulled in to roundtables on issues ranging from hate speech, to fake news, from tackling adult content to the illegal sale of wild animals online.
With this much political interest, tech needs people to sit at their side of the table who knows how the system works – especially given the backlash when tech doesn’t show up. Earlier this year, then-culture secretary Matt Hancock garnered headlines by calling out tech companies, revealing only four out of 14 had sent representatives to a meeting he called on online safety and anti-trolling. Tech needs people to show up.
It’s about people who speak the right language and understand the policy and politics at play
One person explained this isn’t the old who-knows-who game: the name “Google” or “Facebook” opens doors to ministers and others on its own. Instead, they argued, it’s about people who speak the right language and understand the policy and politics at play. Similarly, for communications jobs, political advisors have a good understanding of journalists and the news cycles of scandals – a useful skill in the current tech backlash.
Last December, Twitter’s Nick Pickles – a former Conservative party candidate – was asked to testify to a select committee on algorithmic decision-making, while in October Katie O’Donovan – a former Labour Number 10 special advisor – gave evidence on internet regulation.
There is, though, more at play than just some people to deal with practicalities – and one name kept coming up as to why tech giants started seeing the UK political sphere as a recruiting ground: Rachel Whetstone.
Whetstone was a big name in politics before becoming arguably a bigger one in tech. She served as political secretary to Michael Howard during his time as Conservative leader – and became half of a political power-couple with David . Cameron’s guru Steve Hilton – before becoming one of the earliest figures to depart for the tech scene in 2005.
She has since worked for Google, first in London then in California, before joining Uber and then Facebook, where she will now be a colleague of Clegg.
“Rachel Whetstone was the trailblazer,” said one politico-turned-tech employee. “When she was at Google, she commanded the attention of Larry and Sergei [co-founders] with her political and strategic thinking.
“Companies like Google are made of super smart engineers who look up to other super smart engineers but they loved Rachel for her open, direct manner and the sense and humour with which she spoke. After that every company in the valley that was big enough to care about European policy wanted a Rachel.”
The UK offices of the tech giants are interesting and varied places to work, but not where the biggest decisions are made, nor where the top brass is based. But for those who leave politics for technology who retain their ambition, there are stories like Whetstone’s of people who have broken into the West Coast head offices and had real influence on global policy – a tempting draw versus being a policy advisor to an opposition party, or a talking head for a think-tank.
And even remaining in the UK can be quite an appealing prospect versus other public affairs job: where a financial lobbyist will be focused on the minutiae of international banking rules, a tech policy job can take you from “anti-terrorism, the future of publishing, and privacy in any day”.
As one person noted, veterans of UK politics are also a good fit for a tech industry struggling with not being quite as popular as once it was – something New Labour staffers, Liberal Democrats and Cameronite Conservatives are all-too-familiar with.
Me? I’m an idiot from Wakefield who somehow stumbled into a job that was beyond my comprehension when I was made redundant back in 2010
“The UK is one of the most advanced digital economies and it matters to even the biggest tech company: the UK is the only country that Google breaks out in its financial reports,” one tech staffer says in summary. “Second, it’s a compliment to the British press: if you can live with the heat of British media on a daily basis in British politics then that’s a pretty good training for working somewhere like Google or Facebook, which – unlike most companies – are in the paper every day.”
They add, as a final thought: “And third, Americans still love a British accent, even when it’s telling them what they ought to do.”
Unsurprisingly – given their position – most of the people HuffPost UK contacted were not too concerned about the risk of a “revolving door” between politics and tech, though some acknowledged the danger of it looking bad to the public and damaging trust in politics.
Nick Pickles, a former Conservative advisor who works for Twitter in a policy role, first in the UK and now in the USA, set out some of his thoughts in a public thread.
“[T]he interplay between government and industry is one I’ve long been sceptical of, especially where procurement or specialist regulation is involved,” Pickles wrote. “There should be a much more robust framework to slow down the revolving door across every sector, and anyone who has worked in politics knows the current system of no contact on specific lobbying issues is inadequate.
“That said, lobbying has always been a tiny fraction of my time in the tech industry. Far more has gone into finding solutions to the pressing public policy issues of the day and working with colleagues to address the challenges that are posed by tech.”
But it’s later in his thread that Pickles perhaps summarises the real draw of working in big tech for many in politics.
“Me? I’m an idiot from Wakefield who somehow stumbled into a job that was beyond my comprehension when I was made redundant back in 2010 and moved to London without a job. I owe a huge debt to many people who have given me a chance,” he posted. “But here I am, in California.”