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A 21st Century Agency: Q&A With CFPB's Chris Willey

The CIO of the recently formed regulatory body discusses the role technology plays in the agency, in both internal functions and carrying out its directives.

The Consumer Financial Protections Bureau was borne out of the Dodd-Frank Act in response to the financial crisis of 2008-09. Since it officially began operations in mid-2011, the agency has had to balance the dual tasks of carrying out its mandate as a regulator of consumer protection while also building its tech infrastructure. The CFPB 's CIO, Chris Willey, recently spoke with Bank Systems & Technology about that challenge, how technology shapes what the agency does and the benefits and challenges of being a newly created entity. For more, be on the lookout for the feature story on this topic in our upcoming May print issue.

Bank Systems & Technology: What role does technology play in the CFPB overall, and in supporting specific consumer awareness initiatives?

Willey: I'm really excited to be a part of an agency that has the innovative use of technology in its mission. And it's not just in the mission statement; it's something that's felt end-to-end. From the director on down to everybody that works here, I think everybody realizes the only way we're going to be successful is through the smart use of technology.

The first big area we use technology is consumer engagement; helping consumers understand the products they're using. We felt that a big part of the financial crisis of 2008 was due to folks not really being sure of what they were getting into. We wanted to focus on how we use technology to help the consumer understand the fine print.

We started with mortgages -- which can be pretty complicated to begin with - and created a simplified mortgage disclosure that clearly describes the terms of the deal. We didn't want to do the usual thing, create some printed document and show it to some focus groups and bring it around the conferences, that sort of thing. We wanted to use the power of technology to get a broader reach, and make it easier for people to give us their comments.

We presented two different forms online to the public and asked them which one best conveys the information, and we were even able to go down to a section-by-section level, and ask if each part makes sense. And a lot of the comments we got were very specific. We did all of that online, collected the comments, and used that to improve the instruments as they go forward.

The other part of what we use technology for is consumer complaints. What we did was we actually created an online portal for consumers to send their complaints to the CFPB. The consumer can go online to track the progress of the complaint and the bank can provide the info back to the consumer about what's going on. We give banks 15 days to resolve the issue, and it usually ends up being resolved in 7-10. Banks are being very responsive and consumers like it. Technology allows us to do this in a more automated way.

Bank Systems & Technology: What are some of the challenges you face as CIO?

Willey: Not having legacy applications is a big relief. But there are definitely challenges. Because there are a lot of federal regulations and laws that need to be complied with, and those take time and a lot of effort. We were really fortunate to be a part of the Treasury Department while we were building the Bureau so we were able to leverage their infrastructure, and use that time to get our website up and launch the other things we needed to launch.

One challenge is you need to get the technology, it doesn't appear out of nowhere. You have to establish policies and procedures. We obviously want to make sure our employees have the technology they need. When you don't have an infrastructure, when you don't have an established team, you have to figure out how to get those things in place at the same time you're trying to do everything the Bureau is doing. You have to sort of run the technology alongside that. I think we're doing a good job at that, we could always be doing better, but day-to-day the time is spent on those tactical issues. How do we put the wheels on the train while it's running, so to speak.

Bryan Yurcan is associate editor for Bank Systems and Technology. He has worked in various editorial capacities for newspapers and magazines for the past 8 years. After beginning his career as a municipal and courts reporter for daily newspapers in upstate New York, Bryan has ... View Full Bio

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