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Spotlight on … Peter Selfridge

Spotlight on … Peter Selfridge

July/August 2023

Global Head of Government Affairs

Your career trajectory has been impressive. You’re a Midwesterner — a University of Iowa grad — who has gone from being a legislative correspondent on Capitol Hill to working for presidents, running Blair House and serving as President Barack Obama’s chief of protocol, with ambassadorial status. We don’t normally think of the University of Iowa turning out diplomats.

That’s true. Iowa has a great MFA program, and Hollywood is full of Iowa grads as a result. But it also has a fine political science department, which is why I chose it. I had two professors who I still recall vividly and learned a lot from. One was Peverill Squire, who was always on the TV news shows as a pundit during presidential campaigns. I used to sit in his office, driving him crazy with my questions. Another was John Conybeare, (who could forget the name?) from whom I learned about ideas like “the tragedy of the commons” and “the prisoner’s dilemma.”

Your portfolio at SAP is broad and deep, but one area in which you are really in the thick of it is machine learning and AI, and their application in public affairs. What can you tell the rest of us who are trying to keep up with this rapidly changing — and intimidating — area? We are constantly bombarded with warnings about how dangerous they are.

The concerns are real, and like any tool, the danger lies mainly with the person or persons who use the tool. And, yes, we often hear mainly about the potential bad side. But I see a tremendous upside, too. Productivity in our work has really seen no significant increase in capacity since the introduction of the PC and the smartphone. But thanks to machine learning and AI, we are about to experience a huge increase in productivity that has the potential to enable us to address some of the great challenges of our time, such as climate change. And we are going to need all the intellectual resources available to us to do so, which machine learning and AI can equip us with. And, of course, we will need to use these tools responsibly.

You now work out of Paris, after years in the U.S. What can you tell us about the differences in how public affairs is conducted there?

Not for nothing is Brussels known as the “world’s regulatory engine.” Now depending on where you stand, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. The European Union, in my view, is prolific as of late in its production of regulations for the “common good” — in the area of consumer rights, for example. While “the special interests” are certainly present in EU policymaking and have their influence, they are not as influential as they are in the U.S. This difference, among others, dictates how and why businesses engage with regulators.

You’ve worked for Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Tell us something about these three individuals that those of us who have not dealt directly with them might not know.

If you know them only from the media, you get an impression that really isn’t very helpful. I think you need to slough off a lot of what you hear from the right and from the left. You have to ignore the noise because, from my experience, the reality is markedly different. I think all three of them went into politics for the right reasons. They work hard to do the right thing. The image you might get of Obama from the media might be the most accurate. He eschewed the drama, he was calm and measured, and if there was ever a flash of anger, it disappeared quickly.

Are there any books you’d recommend that helped you understand the world of politics and policy?

I can think of two in particular, though I read them both years ago when I might have been more impressionable than I am today. But they are both still favorites of mine: Team of Rivals and No Ordinary Time, both by Doris Kearns Goodwin. They both gave me a good understanding of the altruistic side of American politics.

Reach Peter at [email protected].

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