CFPB techies blast talk of taking down complaint portal

Should the government continue to host a Yelp for financial services? The people who built it think it should.

Obama speaks to CFPB staff

President Obama addresses CFPB staff flanked by former agency chief Richard Cordray in January 2012.

Created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is one of the first federal examples of bringing in outside tech talent to deliver government services.

"If you're going to build a government agency from scratch, you're going to get the chance to do things differently," one former CFPB senior official told FCW.

That different approach also resulted in one of government's first major government 2.0 digital service offerings: an online, searchable database of consumer complaints against bad behavior from the financial industry.

Now, the bureau's acting head has indicated he wants to take it down.

"I don't see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government," acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney, who also serves as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a recent American Bankers Association conference. "I don't see anything in here that says that I have to make all of those public."

To those who built the database, many of whom came from the private sector and subsequently joined innovation shops like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, it's more than just a 'Yelp for financial services.' It's a staple of open government.

"As an open data and transparency advocate, I firmly believe that the role of government is to release the raw data it collects and to let the public determine how to best use it," said Merici Vinton, one of CFPB's first 20 employees.

To that end, "the database allows the CFPB, journalists, researchers and other interested parties to spot any trends or new and possibly suspicious products that are impacting the market in a negative way and react accordingly," she said.

Erie Meyer, a co-founder of the U.S. Digital Service and an early CFPB employee, added that the companies verify those making complaints as their customers, and can respond publicly in the database.

"Legitimate businesses have no problem addressing their own customers' issues when they come up," she said.

Since launching in 2011, the database has collected more than 1 million complaints from users, which can range from customer service issues to improper debt collections. According to the agency website, 97 percent of complaints sent to companies get "timely responses" to the issues raised.

Currently, CFPB has an open request for information about potential changes to the consumer complaint process, and "is seeking public comment on this issue," a bureau spokesperson told FCW. OMB did not respond to FCW's request for comment.

Given how the portal has been used by consumers to date, "taking it down literally signals you don't want government to be open to the people they're accountable to," the former CFPB official who requested anonymity said. "I think it signals openness is not important, and I think you've got to ask why."

Another former CFPB employee told FCW getting rid of the database would undercut the core mission of the bureau, noting, "the banks were against the database from day one."

"The complaint database was intended to ensure better outcomes for consumers through the relatively cheap means of disclosing complaints to the public," that employee said. "It was an innovation that was low-cost, low-risk, with a high return for the public."

"In trying to kill off the database, Mulvaney makes it clear that he doesn't care about serving the mission of the agency, nor about utilizing cheap, efficient tools," the former CFPB-er continued.

Meyer added that if the database is taken down, the information it contains subject to the Freedom of Information Act and could ultimately cost government "money and time and waste the work of the their staff."

While the database shows how technology can open up government to the public, support for CFPB's mission is sharply divided on party lines. The law that created CFPB passed with just three Republican senators and no Republican representatives voting for the bill.

The prospect of shuttering the CFPB site also raises the question of whether the new generation of digital specialists sought by government innovation shop will continue to apply when the products they build are subject to the shifting political winds.

18F co-founder Aaron Snow doesn't think the possibility of having work upended due to a change in leadership poses "any kind of deterrent or challenge" when it comes to recruiting.

"The opposite may in fact be true," Snow said. "Everyone in this business knows no code is forever, just like no law or building is forever. Folks from the tech world have seen their products and features come and go, often much faster than every [four or eight] years."

Meyer agreed, telling FCW, "the best thing about technologists who want to work in public service is that they’re laser-focused on the work. They want to make the country work better."

But Vinton, who founded and runs Ada's List after leaving CFPB, said taking down the database "would be a clear signal that this administration isn't interested in delivering effective digital services to the taxpayer, at the CFPB or any other federal agency."

Yet whatever repercussions reversing such a project might have on attracting outside tech talent into government, the legacy of the database itself is already cemented, another of the early CFPB employees said.

"The complaint database was one of the greatest success stories of government using open data to achieve positive outcomes for Americans," the employee said. "It will always be a model for why improving government transparency benefits taxpayers."

Note: This article was updated on May 16 to add Vinton's post-CFPB role.

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