Who leaves Comedy Central to work for the government?

September 7, 2012

Some join the federal government after law school; others after a stint with a campaign, nonprofit or consulting firm. Audrey Chen came from “South Park.”

As a senior designer at Comedy Central, Chen re-engineered the Web sites for cult hits such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” But a year ago, the Brooklynite was persuaded to join a team of Web developers, information architects, and digital strategists who want to revolutionize the very way that Washington works.


Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart host Comedy Central's "Indecision 2008: America's Choice.” (Brad Barket)

If Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are now the guiding lights for the young generation now “staring up at fading Obama posters” — as Paul Ryan said in his convention speech — then the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recruited straight from the source.

The CFPB was created in July 2010 to battle exploitive and deceptive financial practices as part of President Obama’s Wall Street overhaul. And it’s become a mecca for the young, creative do-gooders who still believe that new technology and the right open-source ethos can fulfill the president’s promise of a changed Washington.

Chen, 34, had never worked for the government before — or expected that she would. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, she leapt at the chance to join a new agency that likens itself to a tech startup, with the goal of creating an efficient, participatory, transparent government that replaces ideology and partisanship with data and results.

She’s now the CFPB’s creative director, helping to lead a tech and innovation team whose work is integral to the agency’s policy efforts. “I’m excited by things that need fixing,” said Chen, a petite Brooklynite with a chin-length bob and thick black glasses.

Chen is joined by Victor Zapanta, a 29-year-old CFPB Web developer who uses Twitter and Foursquare to track his every move around Washington, whether it’s a pop-up art installation in Anacostia or the launch of a new credit-card database.

As a CFPB tech specialist, Erie Meyer, 27, espouses the startup strategies of Eric Ries, a leading Web entrepreneur outside of the office, she hosts meet-ups for a group of female Web gurus known as the "Tech LadyMafia." Another CFPB tech strategist, Noah Kunin, is among the longest-tenured staffers in the entire agency, having joined in December 2010. He’s now 30.

These young staffers want to make Washington work better, faster and smarter. But they’re also trying to pull it off at the most politically controversial agency inside the Beltway — one with unprecedented authority over the financial industry, which Mitt Romney himself has vowed to repeal. It’s not clear whether such a revolution can happen at a place that’s required, by law, to put up red tape — or whether the CFPB will survive long enough to turn its virtual dreams into a reality.

A Beltway start-up

From the outside, the CFPB looks like an unlikely place for any kind of revolution: Its headquarters are a bland, concrete relic that used to house the old Office of Thrift Supervision. The previous tenant’s logo is still rusted into the side of the building, covered up with a large white placard. Inside, signs are taped to the conference room doors.

Despite its humble facade, the CFPB has more leeway than any other agency to reinvent the way that government works by virtue of starting from scratch. Obama’s promise of change wasn’t just about overcoming partisanship, but also using technology to change the nature of government itself. His 2008 campaign leveraged digital tools to attract voters, volunteers and contributions. On his first day in office, the president vowed to apply the same digital tools and ethos to bring “an unprecedented level of openness” and public engagement to Washington itself.

Early on, the CFPB attracted some of the very veterans who powered Obama’s 2008 campaign. Its approach to its tech-centered projects has been shaped as much by industry leaders like Apple and Google as the Treasury Department. “Think mint.com meets healthcare.gov with a really fun team and an agency with a wonderful mission,” Merici Vinton — an Obama 2008 campaign staffer and recently-departed CFPB tech strategist — told blogger Alex Howard in the agency’s early months. “The downside for a talented, high demand developer is that there isn’t an IPO or acquisition at the end of this rainbow. The upside is — creating this agency and getting it right from day one is important work.”

This isn’t your father’s government agency: It’s a place that hosts its own lunchtime version of TED talks, serves Pabst Blue Ribbon at holiday parties and adopts a Silicon Valley method to managing its digital projects. Even the CFPB logo is a conscious departure from the buttoned-down aesthetic of the Beltway: It depicts a searchlight shining across bright green, all-lower-case letters.

For designers like Chen, the CFPB’s approach isn’t just about making the government’s work more tech-savvy or aesthetically pleasing: Horrible design leads to a bad user experience, which CFPB staffers believe is at the heart of the mission that the Obama administration has handed to them.

“If you look at consumer financial problems, they often get information too late,” Chen says. And even if they have the information before their eyes, if their eyes aren’t falling on the right information at the right time, it’s a wasted opportunity. “A door shouldn’t need to say ‘push’ or ‘pull’ on it,” she said. “Democracy doesn’t work if it’s not usable — if you can’t participate.”

Such thinking is a key part of the CFPB’s most expansive consumer project to date, “Know Before You Owe.” In July, it unveiled new mortgage disclosure forms meant to prevent homebuyers from getting in over their heads, in hopes of preventing another housing meltdown.

The public notice for proposed rules governing the new mortgage disclosures are more than 1,000 pages — hardly the paragon of a streamlined operation. But under the hood, the CFPB took a page straight from Silicon Valley in designing new form to better help customers understand their financial decisions.

The bureau created rapid prototypes of sample mortgage forms and tested them out in small groups akin to clinical trials, rolling out new versions every few weeks. It then turned to the Web to solicit feedback on the forms online, receiving more than 27,000 comments and creating heat maps of users’ click patterns to see which parts attracted the most attention.

“We wanted to make sure that online participation wasn’t just symbolic, but actually provided information that could inform the existing design process,” said Dan Munz, a CFPB project manager

In the same spirit, CFPB has used early feedback from consumers to tweak its online student loan calculator and financial aid shopping sheet, using Google Analytics to determine what’s actually attracting clicks and adjusting accordingly. In classic start-up style, the agency launched its student loan calculator with a big beta stamp on top indicating it was a work in progress. (Google did the same when it first launched Gmail.)

In fact, the new approach bears all the hallmarks of Ries, a 33-year-old engineer and entrepreneur who met early on with the Obama officials and CFPB staff. Ries’ big innovation isn’t a shiny product, but a process: He encourages businesses to create prototypes quickly, then modify them afterward through intensive customer feedback. “Despite its $500 million budget and high-profile origins, the CFPB is really a startup,” he wrote in his book “The Lean Startup.”

Obama, for his part, has publicly championed the agency’s digitally-powered efforts to protect consumers, placing them at the heart of his speeches before young voters.

“Everybody has got to be well informed. We call it ‘Know Before You Owe,’ ” he said in a June speech at the University of Las Vegas. “Don’t be surprised — two weeks from graduation you look up, and whap! You just got hit upside the head. Know before you owe.”

The CFPB has been heartened by the attention — and has made it part of its own recruiting pitch to creative, tech types. “There are so many startups you could work for, some of which have incredible ideas that can change the world” said Matt Burton, the CFPB’s deputy chief information officer. “But the odds are very low that the public will ever see those ideas. Come work here, and the president could be talking about what you make.”

‘Nerd show-and-tell’

The CFPB’s culture of innovation has been a point of pride for its youthful tech team. Rather than cordon off its Web designers and developers in a separate office, relegating them to the usual IT desk status, the CFPB has embedded Web techs throughout the bureau. Much like in Obama’s 2012 campaign headquarters in Chicago, laptop-wielding employees are grouped together in collaborative clusters, with break rooms nearby for impromptu meetings. The agency has also made all its new digital tools open-source, which lets the public tinker with the code and suggest improvements.

“I say, ‘I got this crazy, cool, young, geeky idea.’ No one says, ‘Some chump 20-year-old, he thinks he knows how to do things,’” says Ben Balter, 25, a self-described “Gov 2.0 evangelist” who did a stint as an open-source developer at the CFPB.

Creativity, in other words, is considered mission-critical. Every other Friday is “Dev Team Hootenanny,” where the CFPB’s Web developers gather to hear about each others’ embryonic ideas and side-projects. “It’s nerd show-and-tell,” Zapanta said. The tech team is also allotted “20 percent time” during their work week to focus on their own special projects — an approach that Google pioneered and credits for some of its biggest breakthroughs.

Such freedom hasn’t come without complications, however. In designing the agency’s Web site, Zapanta deliberately avoided visiting any other agency’s sites for fear of being influenced by their standard-issue features. The goal was to produce “a cutting-edge Web site, not a ‘government’ Web site,” he said.

Not all of his new colleagues were thrilled. “One person thought the aesthetic was too ‘hipster,’” he said. Zapanta countered that the site wasn’t supposed to be stylish for its own sake: The clean, modern-looking format is meant to make it easy for the consumers to navigate, and to inspire a sense of trust and loyalty. “Consumers understand the value of a Web site whose appearance is informed by their favorite company, not every other government site,” he said.

The higher-ups agreed, and the site design stuck. “We let them own design decisions,” said Chris Willey, the CFPB’s Chief Information Officer. “In most federal agencies, it’s by committee. Here it should be owned by talented individuals.”

At the end, it’s a bureaucracy

But the CFPB ultimately can’t get around the fact that it is still, by law, a bureaucracy —  with all the procedural slowdowns and bloat that comes with it.

“By its own admission, the CFPB’s first rule will require 7.6 million compliance hours. Its most recent rule totals 1,099 pages,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), citing the notice for its new mortgage disclosure requirements. “Such numbers hardly suggest a reduction in bureaucracy and red tape.”

The CFPB has a 2012 budget of more than $350 million, with a 900-person staff that’s ultimately expected to top 1,300. Under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB was required to absorb staff and responsibilities from the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Company, as well as a hodgepodge of rules from different agencies. And not everyone is as eager to upend the status quo — particularly when it means putting new information up online.

In June, the bureau unveiled the CFPB’s latest digital project: a new customer complaint database for credit cards, which has logged more than 4,100 complaints.

Companies hated the idea, warning that disclosing the complaints “may paint a misleading picture” and risk damaging the “safety and soundness” of firms that had committed no wrongdoing, as the National Association of Federal Credit Unions put it. Even some CFPB staffers were uncomfortable with the move.

The agency says that including the company names was internally the “consensus recommendation by CFPB staff,” according to a spokesperson, who noted that both the proposed and early beta versions of the database including the company names. The project went forward as planned with great official fanfare.

But the issue also pointed to a central tension between Washington’s new vanguard who wants to push more and more data online and Beltway veterans who see the dangers of laying it all bare.

The CFPB says that its mortgage disclosure notice was so lengthy partly because of the law, but also because “we believe that part of our commitment to open government is providing more rather than less information about our work,” according to its blog. And even Ries, the entrepreneur, acknowledges that agencies are often surrounded by red tape for a reason. “Bureaucracies exist in mission critical situations to protect people from bad ideas,” he said.

Meanwhile, the CFPB has begun carrying out one of its most contentious, politically controversial tasks: bringing down the hammer on unscrupulous lenders. In its first enforcement action, the agency fined Capitol One bank $210 million for deceiving credit-card consumers, prompting some of the CFPB’s critics to threaten legal action.

Such fights have re-animated GOP opponents of the agency — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it "something out of the Stalinist era" — who were incensed when Obama bypassed the Senate to recess-appoint its first director, Richard Cordray, in January.

But the CFPB’s young tech set doesn’t seem too preoccupied with such threats, leaving the political wrangling to others. And they’ve found at least one new way to cope with life in a Rube Goldberg machine: a self-contained network known as “ThingLauncher” for employees’ internal use.

There, Web developers can test out new projects undisturbed, while they’re waiting for the lawyers and policy teams to clear their projects. “Press a button, and you have a new sandbox,” Zapanta says with a grin. It is an elegant virtual reality — where red tape and re-election campaigns no longer exist.

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Sarah Kliff · September 7, 2012