You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Warren Brings Her Consumer Watchdoggery to the Web

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, February 3 2011

The Consumer Financial Protection Board introduced itself to the Internet today. // Image credit: Anthony Russomano

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Board, created by federal law last July as Washington scrambled to respond in some lasting way to the financial crisis, has take a big step in its process to "stand this agency up," as with which President Obama tasked Elizabeth Warren in September. Obama named named the Harvard Law School professor and advocate a special advisor in charge of getting up and running an agency meant to help American consumers make sense of everything from loans to credit cards to mortgages, and to give them a full-time advocate in Washington DC.

And now the Warren-led Consumer Financial Protection Board, a.k.a the CFPB, has a website, or at least the start of one. Meet ConsumerFinance.gov.

The new executive agency won't get its regulatory powers until July 21, on the one year anniversary of the signing of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Warren, who served as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP before being charged with bringing CFPB into life, was advocating for the creation of a consumers bureau for years. But whether Warren will also head up the CFPB when it gets grows into its own as a standalone agency, separate and apart from the Treasury Department that has fostered it until now, is an open question. (Ultimately, the CFPB will be housed in the Federal Reserve, but will function as its own entity.) Warren isn't all that well liked in the financial world, and the CFPB head post will require Senate confirmation. The Wall Street Journal reported in late December that she has been looking for possible candidates to take over at the helm of the new agency.

What Warren and her team do have, at the moment, is the authority to shape how the CFPB introduces itself to the Internet, and in a California speech in October Warren made the case for the idea that baking conversation and comparison tools into its web presence could help this fledgling agency avoid being captured by the industry it's meant to oversee, a fate that limits how effective some of the older federal agencies on the block can be. A centerpiece of the CFPB site at launch is Open for Suggestions, an open-ended call for the public to send in via text, tweet, or video ideas for what the new consumer agency should be or do. Some of the comments that get submitted, says the agency staff, will get responded to by video right on the site. At the moment, ConsumerFinance.gov is featuring an animated three minute meet-the-CFPB video (above right) that explains what the agency hopes to do, in part by contrasting the ease and confidence with which the American consumer buys, say, a toaster with the terror that can be induced when one attempts to make sense of one's monthly credit statement.

In getting its web presence off the ground, Warren and the CFPB brought in, among others, someone who knows from online consumer finance -- David Forrest, the agency's new lead for online engagement who came to federal work from 15 years wearing a variety of hats at the popular financial site The Motley Fool. Forrest's bringing into his new role, he says, experience in "demystifying the complicated" when it comes to Americans and their money. The team working on the site numbers about a dozen, and includes Merici Vinton as the new media lead. The new site, in full-fledged production for about six weeks now, runs on the open-source WordPress content management system and the Django web framework.

Another feature on the new site: "Professor Warren's Calendar," showing -- with a time delay to be determined -- a detailed look at who Warren meets with day in and day out. Warren may or may not head up this newest of federal agencies when it emerges in official form five and a half months from now. But you can look at this new site and see an attempt by her and her small team to create a culture of public interaction, transparency, and open data that might carry over when the Consumer Financial Protection Board finally joins the ranks of real federal agencies. Check out the new ConsumerFinance.gov here.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry provided informal advice to the CFPB technology staff during its startup phase, but we maintain a strict wall being that work and our editorial side.