By Susan Crawford
October 29, 2013 Bloomberg View - Are you tired of stories about the HealthCare.gov debacle day after day? Here’s another tale of government technology-building that’s decidedly happier.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has just unveiled a sophisticated website aimed at making financial regulations easier to find and understand. Let’s hope other agencies at every level of government take notice.
The CFPB is an independent agency dreamed up by now-Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2007 and authorized by the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010. Its job is to help consumers get the information they need to understand the terms of their agreements with financial companies. The bureau also writes rules, supervises companies and enforces federal consumer-protection laws.
This young agency has been a technology leader. It has asked for -- and received -- extensive online help from consumers in redesigning mortgage disclosures and student financial forms to make them easier to understand. It has built an online list of about 1,000 frequently asked questions and answers on consumer finance that almost a million people have consulted. And now it is working to change the way Americans interact with the regulatory state itself.
Meet consumerfinance.gov/eregulations, rolled out earlier this month. Texts of official government rules are notoriously difficult to follow. Multiple cross-references to other rules make it necessary to consult many different resources. Experienced rule readers can find official interpretations; others can’t. CFPB’s new user-friendly site makes all available information visible and easily accessible.
CFPB got designers and developers from the private sector to help build the platform in about eight months -- by offering two-year fellowships to people who want to work for a civic cause but don’t see themselves as permanent government employees. By focusing on users’ experience of the site, they built something that works well for real people. And the platform will constantly be upgraded because it’s open source -- meaning that any agency or company can adopt it free and improve on it.
Right now, lawyers are the primary website consumers. They can find the updated information they need without consulting paper volumes or paying for expensive subscription services. But the general public will increasingly be involved, as other agencies will be able to use this code for similar sites that solicit comments on regulations. Then, the regulatory state will be far more visible to citizens, and the process of regulation will be more accountable. (Although regulations.gov -- an existing consumer-access website -- publishes entire proposed rules and allows the public to make general comments, it doesn’t reveal how particular comments relate to one another or to particular chunks of the regulation.)
The same kind of streamlined platform should be adopted throughout government. And more agencies should adopt fellowship programs like the CFPB’s to recruit talented outsiders who can make government technology useful -- and show their private-sector colleagues that public service is worthwhile. Government technologists should stay focused on design and user experience as well as on keeping existing systems running.
For a federal agency to create a website that simplifies what is complex and shares as much information as possible amounts to disruptive behavior. As Matthew Burton, CFPB’s acting chief information officer, explains, many people are unaware that when government agencies write regulations, citizens have a right to weigh in. The CFPB wants everyone to be able to navigate the regulatory process. It’s a refreshing idea -- especially in contrast to the story of the moment.
(Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is the author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” Follow her on Twitter at @scrawford.)
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