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Facebook exec talks public policy-making, education

Joel Kaplan, vice president of public policy at Facebook, discussed the challenges of public policy-making at the Sanford School of Public Policy Wednesday. The event was hosted by American Grand Strategy. The Chronicle
's Shanen Ganapathee sat down with Kaplan to discuss his role as the former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, his goals at Facebook and his career plans as a college student.

The Chronicle: How was the move from White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy to vice president of public policy at Facebook?

Joel Kaplan: It’s been an interesting transition. I was in the White house under the [George W.] Bush administration, which was a wonderful opportunity. By the time I got to the end of the eight years, which is a long time for anybody to serve in those roles, I was pretty tired and was ready for something different.
The Bush administration was a really consequential time in American history, which I was fortunate to be part of. But at the end, especially with the financial crisis that came in the last five months or so of the Bush administration, I was ready to move on and do something different. It took a little while for me to get the opportunity at Facebook, but when I did it, it really was the perfect fit for me. One of the things that I find at Facebook which is quite similar [to the experience I had in the government] is that it’s a place that attracts really smart, energetic, enthusiastic and driven people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves and that’s exactly what you tend to find in government. Being able to replicate that in the private sector in a company that’s doing really big and important things and contributing to transformational changes and role, was a really good opportunity for transition.

TC: While you were at college, what were your career plans?

JK: When I was in college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I actually applied to law school as a senior in college and was admitted and intended to attend. In the summer after my senior year, I decided that I was not ready to go back to school right away. I wanted a set of experiences that I had not been subjected to up to that point. So, I joined the Marines.

It was not the road map at all. It was just a terrific experience for me and it made me much more prepared when I actually went to Law School. I went to Law School and was back on the path of becoming a lawyer. After I graduated Law School I did a couple of clerkships, and by the end of my second clerkship... I decided that I would try to join the Bush campaign. I thought it was going to be a four-month detour, but I ended up having some great opportunities and got connected with a guy, who would go on and become my mentor—Josh Bolten [former White House Chief of Staff]... asked me to come and join him in the chief of staff’s office. That was not at all what I had planned and what I thought I would do. I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. Instead, I ended up having a really interesting career in policy, at the intersection of public policy and politics.

I found out that it was what I loved to do and Facebook gave me an opportunity to continue doing what I loved, but from a different vantage point in the private sector.

TC: What do you focus on at Facebook?

JK: One of the things that we are always focused on in the public policy department at Facebook is explaining our privacy policies and practices to policy makers and that’s often an issue that they are interested in understanding. Our job in Washington is to communicate and explain policy and procedures and protections we have for people who use our service, and it’s also to understand and hear from policy maker about the things they are concerned about or the things their constituents are concerned about. [We then] bring those back to our business partners within Facebook, who then internalize it in the processes they have for designing products.

For instance, because of some work commitment we made to the federal trade commission, we put in place a new chief privacy officer for policy in Washington and the chief privacy officer for product works with the engineers to make sure the privacy is baked into all of our products from the beginning of the process. There is really this iterative process of dialogue that takes place between the company on the business side and policy makers through the public policy function that I am a part of. We also have spent a lot of time in the last couple of years with issues having to do with online piracy and we also had a big role to play in the debate around [Stop Online Piracy Act] and [Protect IP Act]. Since then, we have spent a lot of time advocating for reforms in our immigration policies both with respect to the need for more high-skilled temporary work Visas and green cards so that we can attract and retain the type of high-skilled engineering workforce that we need and U.S. schools are not generating enough of. We’ve spent a lot of our time on educating people in Washington about the impact of those policies on our industry and our economy. In the last seven or eight months, we’ve been dealing with the fallout from Snowden’s leaks about the NSA.

TC: What do think will help generate the workforce that you say Facebook needs?

JK: First of all, I think it has to start a lot younger than college and so we need to do a better job in our elementary schools and high schools of teaching STEM subjects and computer science. This is something our educational system has just not kept up with and that’s particularly true with respect to low income schools and is particularly true in diverse communities and specially with women.
We have a huge disparity in this country in terms of the number of women that are encouraged to pursue academic degrees in computer science, We’ve got the COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg who’s been a really active spokeswoman for making sure that we are not hindering women’s ambition with societal expectations. More than half of the population of college graduates are women and a very few percentage of them are pursuing STEM subjects, so we are losing a big opportunity as a country and a huge resource to use the best minds we have and put them into these fields that are creating tremendous economic growth.

In the short term you just need temporary work Visas and green cards for people who have the skills, many of whom come here to get educated in our great universities like the one we are at, but then we kick them out, send them home and they take all the benefit of that great education we provide them and let their economies benefit from it rather than take advantage of it here. So, in the short term we need to have reforms in our immigration policies to allow companies to attract high-skilled labor and make sure there is an adequate amount of Visas to match the demand for labor. Then, in a longer term, we can address this problem in the pipeline and ensure that we are providing quality education.

TC: What was the goal you wished to achieve in coming here?

JK: I was invited here by an old colleague of mine from my White House days, Professor [Peter] Feaver, and I think his hope was that I would be able to come and share a little bit about my experiences of working in both the private sector and the government, and just give a picture of students interested in those fields what it looks like to work in public policy to see whether that’s of interest to them. Or maybe I’ll scare them off a bit.

TC: What's the weirdest thing you’ve witnessed while working at Facebook?

JK: When you walk on our campus in Menlo park... somebody has put a big model doll house in the middle of the campus and sticking out from the doll house are a pair of legs that are supposed to represent the Wicked Witch of the East. Nobody has ever satisfactorily explained to me what this is doing in the middle of our campus.


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