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Building a 21st Century Agency: An Inside Look at the CFPB's Technology Infrastructure

While it has begun outreach initiatives to help it understand the scope of its task, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has had to build its tech infrastructure. CFPB CIO Chris Willey recently spoke with BS&T about the benefits and challenges of being a newly created entity and about how technology advances the agency's mission.

Following its inception in summer 2011, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hit the ground running. Borne out of the Dodd-Frank Act in response to the financial crisis, the fledgling agency is responsible for promoting transparency in financial products, especially potentially complicated products such as mortgages and credit cards that often include extensive "fine print."

Out of the gate, the CFPB has had to balance the dual tasks of carrying out its mandate as a regulator while also building a technology infrastructure. As the agency's CIO, Chris Willey is intimately involved in that ongoing process. No newcomer to the tech demands of a federal agency, Willey served as the deputy CIO at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management prior to becoming the first CIO of the CFPB.

Since the CFPB essentially was built from scratch over the past few years, the agency is in a unique position technology-wise compared to other federal agencies. According to Willey, there are both pros and cons to helming such a recently formed outfit. "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," he says.

Willey adds that he and the rest of his staff have been juggling the day-to-day operation of the agency and helping to support its various initiatives while simultaneously building up the tech infrastructure. The CFPB began its existence as a part of the Department of the Treasury and was able to leverage that agency's infrastructure, such as laptops and network access, Willey explains. But the CFPB has begun to "peel off some services from the Treasury infrastructure and stand them up on our own," he reports, estimating that the process will continue through the rest of this fiscal year and likely into the next one.

Tech at the Heart of the Mission

Willey says he is "really excited to be a part of an agency that has the innovative use of technology in its mission." "From the director on down to everybody that works here," he comments, "everybody realizes the only way we're going to be successful is through the smart use of technology."

[Related Content: Q&A With CFPB's Chris Willey]

And the agency has wasted no time leveraging modern technology to help consumers understand the financial documents they are signing. For example, the agency sought to create a simplified mortgage disclosure document that could help consumers by clearly defining 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 to the conferences and that sort of thing," Willey relates. "We wanted to use the power of technology to get a broader reach and make it easier for people to give us their comments."

According to Willey, the CFPB presented two different forms online and asked consumers to indicate which one best conveyed the information in a clear and concise manner. Consumers could also make comments on each section of the documents if they thought any parts of them did not make sense.

Another area in which the CFPB has used technology to improve consumer engagement and streamline the process is consumer complaints. Willey and his team created an online portal through which consumers can send their complaints to the agency. The consumer then can go online to track the progress of the complaint, and the financial institution can leverage the portal to respond and keep the consumer informed about the steps it's taking to rectify the situation.

"We give banks 15 days to resolve the issue, and it usually ends up being resolved in seven to 10 days," Willey says. "Banks are being very responsive, and consumers like it. Technology allows us to do this in a more automated way."

Willey notes that the CFPB also uses social media extensively. He says all of the agency's events are streamed live whenever possible. Further, the CFPB supports those events with Twitter and Facebook campaigns. "So people are following along with the live stream and tweeting questions at the same time, and it becomes a bigger, broader conversation that we're a part of," he says. "That's one way we've used social media to enhance what we're doing."

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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