“The whole system seems broken”: David Cameron’s former chief strategist fights the power with tech

As the man who in 2010 helped orchestrate the return to power of the British Conservative Party, Oxford-educated Steve Hilton was the ultimate insider. He’s the former director of strategy for David Cameron and is credited with rebranding the British Prime Minister as a progressive everyman. He’s godfather to Cameron’s son Ivan.

Now from his new home in Silicon Valley he rails against the political system of which he once sat at the top table. “The whole system seems broken,” he says.

He thinks tech can help.

In 2012 Steve took a sabbatical from his position as possibly Britain’s most influential political advisor to move to California where his wife, Rachel Whetstone, is now Uber’s VP of Policy and Communications. At the time of his departure it was reported that he had grown impatient at the slow pace of reform within government and an absence of radical thinking.

Considered a blue-sky thinker with “wacky ideas”, a number of his policy suggestions, such as replacing government press officers with bloggers, had caused tension within government corridors.

“People should be really angry about all this”

Four years into his sabbatical, he’s putting his energy into Crowdpac, a site that allows people to crowdfund political campaigns. He hopes that it will mitigate the influence of money in politics, something he witnessed firsthand in government.

Crowdpac is an attempt to give more the people the chance to run for political office

“The rules are stacked in favour of the insiders and the big players with the resources to lobby government in one form or another. People should be really angry about all this,” says Steve.

Working alongside SECOND HOME Co-Founder and former British government advisor Rohan Silva, Steve fought with ministers and civil servants to see government contracts awarded to startups and entrepreneurs. He says they were knocked back at every opportunity, as were efforts to have the voice of small business heard in policy discussions.

Lobbying doesn’t come cheap.

“You would have the market represented by one or two people around a table. The voice of big business is present in government circles because they’re organised; they’ve got a corporate hierarchy with lobbyists and public affairs people. They can organise their campaigns and they can get to see ministers and senior civil servants very easily,” says Steve.

Although he may have fought for small businesses and carried himself more like a startup founder than a political strategist, favouring t-shirts and flip flops over a suit, Steve has said that he never saw himself at the helm of a Silicon Valley startup. Then there was precise turning point.

“I remember it very clearly,” he says.

From the cabinet to the dorm room

When Steve moved to California he hadn’t decided what he was going to do next aside from teaching in Stanford University as a visiting scholar. It was at Stanford’s design school that he began reading up on design thinking: relentless focus on the user, rapid prototyping and constant iterating.

Before he began teaching his class he took part in a number of one-off events where he got to know the university’s student body. He says he felt that half the students walking the campus were working on some form of startup.

Within weeks he’d already helped out a number of startups working at the intersection of tech, government and civic engagement. He became an advisor for one particular startup.

“I had seen startups from a policy level in government. It was great to see one literally from a dorm room at a university,” says Steve.

The startup was working on an idea that they called ‘micro-lobbying’: a crowdfunding platform that would allow people club their resources together in an effort to compete with major lobbying groups.

He didn’t think that a crowdfunded group could make a mark in the heavily personalised world of lobbying. He thought they should pivot.

“I said, ‘Look, there’s another way that the rich and powerful control politics and that is through political donations,” says Steve.

The one percent of the one percent

Back in 1980 the richest 0.1 percent contributed 16 percent of all campaign donations in US politics. Today it’s almost 42 percent and headed towards 50. That means that 25,000 of the wealthiest donors in the States account for almost half the money in American politics.

Access to capital is a real barrier to those wishing to run for office. Most don’t have these donors on their side.

“The people who donate tend to know each other. They socialise together and know exactly how to play the game of politics to get the outcomes they want. More and more, regular people are just shut out of the process,” says Steve.

He suggested the Stanford startup move to a model that would allow people run crowdfunded election election campaigns. However, the startup’s co-founders were happier to work on their original idea.

“One of them said, ‘If you want to do your idea, get some engineers and work on it.’ I literally went home that night and decided to go for it,” says Steve.

Since taking a sabbatical from Whitehall, Steve has become a vocal critic of the influence of bureaucracy

It’s no move to the left

Crowdpac was founded in 2013 and has since raised a $2.5 million Seed. In January of this year Black Voters Matter leaders used the site to run 50 candidates for seats in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate.

A month later DeRay McKesson, one of the most high-profile members of the activist group Black Lives Matter, announced his candidacy for the Mayor of Baltimore. Through Crowdpac he’s since received donations of $222,000. Slack Co-Founder Stewart Butterfield, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Twitter Executive Chairman Omid Kordestani have all contributed $6,000 to his campaign.

“Independent-minded candidates are shut out of office these days. We just want to make it easier for them to run,” says Steve.

It was said of Steve’s time in government that he was “appallingly understood. While he was parodied in BBC comedy The Thick of It as shallow PR hack Stewart Pearson, his real focus was always on policy.

To understand him now, his work with Crowdpac shouldn’t be confused with a lurch to the left.

Steve says that fighting the influence of money in politics shouldn’t be considered an issue solely for the left. He actually makes a free market argument.

“What you’ve really got going on here is old-fashioned corporatism. We should all care about it because many people, whether that’s startups and entrepreneurs or people looking to run for office, are being frozen out by the insiders. It’s not a political argument at all,” he says.

Cover photo credit: Steve Hilton, speaking at the launch of his book “More Human” – Audio, video and a transcript of this event will be available here.

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