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2/13/2012
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New Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Promises Agile IT

While other federal agencies struggle with outdated legacy systems, the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau aims to keep lean with agile processes, cloud computing, and open source.

Top 10 Open Government Websites
Top 10 Open Government Websites
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Outdated information technology systems and processes bog down many federal agencies, contributing to what federal officials say is a productivity gap between the public and private sectors and causing many agencies to over-spend on IT maintenance. The brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, luckily, has none of those problems.

The new agency, which began operation as a result of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law passed in 2010, aims to make the financial marketplace work better for consumers by promoting fairness and transparency in mortgages, credit cards, and other financial products. Tech will play a big role in that mission, CFPB CIO Chris Willey said in an interview with InformationWeek this week, his first since taking on the CIO job in September.

The CFPB serves as an interesting case study in what federal agencies might be able to do if they were able to start from scratch. Technologies and methodologies such as cloud computing, open source, agile development, and standardized data dominate the CFPB's tech strategy, which aims to keep the agency's tech lean and future-ready and the agency itself engaged directly with stakeholders such as financial institutions and the general public.

[ Obama's biggest transparency project to date, Data.gov, makes progress. See Data.gov Delivers Government Apps, Data For Businesses. ]

Because its mission involves getting the financial world to work better for the public, the CFPB's website has played a major role in the bureau's initial efforts, with numerous tools to help the public understand more about loans, work with the bureau to simplify mortgages, improve the way schools communicate student loan offers, and even complain about the behavior of their financial institutions.

Design is a key part of the strategy, and Willey wants to make sure that citizens and financial institutions are able to quickly find what they're looking for on the site and easily use the tools that the CFPB offers. "We believe that user-centric design and development are core competencies," he said, adding that this applies both to the agency's website and its internally-facing technology. "A lot of agencies outsource those functions, but we feel like we need to bake it in."

One tool on the bureau's website, Know Before You Owe, helps people understand what they are getting into with mortgages, student loans, and credit cards before they sign up. For credit cards, for example, the site provides a model form that defines key terms such as "APR" and "grace period" for users, describes how these terms work, and allows users to compare the model forms with credit card forms from more than 300 card issuers. A deeper dive into student loans is due this fall.

"The whole concept is to say that, part of the problem when you buy things is that there's a lot of fine print and the documents are just too hard to understand," Willey said. "What if we had a better, simpler form or document that actually describes the instrument?"

The CFPB's site also allows users to file credit card complaints, describing what happened and how they want to see their situation resolved. After users enter their information and information on their credit card company into the site, banks then use a separate portal where they can see all the complaints and show how they have resolved the complaints. Throughout that process, consumers can track their complaint and the bank's response or lack thereof.

Also on the docket for the bureau are a website redesign and a push toward open data. A redesign of the website's look and feel is due by late February or early March, Willey said. Open-source search eventually will be part of the package.

Willey said he expects the bureau to provide open data online soon, including, for example, data about where around the country the most troubled mortgages and student loans are. In all, Willey said the agency already has tens of terabytes of data, and expects that number to rise into the hundreds of terabytes in the near future, though much of that won't be public.

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