The CFPB’s new website looks like a campaign site

Jim Eltringham | Contributor

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) launched its new website late last week, ConsumerFinance.gov. The site includes an intriguing self-defense mechanism against critics of larger government.

Forged during last spring’s battle over financial reform on Capitol Hill, the CFPB was designed to oversee, investigate and regulate banks and other institutions — a sort of Environmental Protection Agency for Wall Street.

While its mission may be analogous to other government agencies, though, the CFPB’s Web presence is quite unique. The site’s clean, open design makes it look different from most of the typical, boxy government websites. As Nick Judd wrote for TechPresident.com, “Using it feels more like renting a Zipcar than interacting with a government agency.”

But design is one thing; function is another — and there’s a major function of ConsumerFinance.gov that makes using the site feel more like participating in a campaign than government oversight of the financial sector.

Displayed prominently on the home page is a bright, shiny, teal button that reads, “Tell Your Story.” Clicking on it brings up a contact form inviting users to submit their thoughts on the financial system. As anyone who runs either candidate or grassroots advocacy campaigns can attest, voter testimonials offer credibility and help illustrate public support during electoral, legislative or regulatory battles. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency releases new regulations on power plants, the most persuasive arguments against those regulations come from people who can’t afford to pay higher electric bills.

Using testimonials allows your campaign to speak through unaffiliated third parties and establish a connection with the broader population. It’s an effective tactic in a political campaign.

So what is an effective political campaign tool doing on an executive government agency’s website?

The CFPB was born in a storm and has been under fire ever since. The bureau is already becoming a target for House Republicans who see it as an obvious place to trim excess government regulation and — more topically — excess government spending. The bureaucrats in charge of the CFPB will eventually have to answer for their budgets and the regulatory actions they undertake.

They will probably answer their critics with numbers documenting consumer complaints about financial institutions or missives about fiscal policy and the health of financial institutions. For a certain subset of the population that gets thrilled by C-SPAN coverage, that may be enough.

But imagine CFPB Director Richard Cordray augmenting his testimony before a House Budget or Oversight Committee by reading dozens of testimonials from consumers recounting their support for the CFPB’s mission. (And if the folks running the site are doing their jobs, they might even encourage those people to share those stories with their respective members of Congress, too.)

That would make for some pretty compelling testimony — not to mention a convincing show of grassroots muscle to members of Congress in competitive districts.

The CFPB’s “Tell Your Story” section is more than a simple contact form and much more than a mere sounding board. It is the agency’s avenue to collect, quantify and mobilize public support for its goals. In other words, it allows the agency to act as a campaign, smudging the already smeared line between politics and policy.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s stated mission may focus on consumer protection, but its online headquarters makes it clear that self-preservation is a concern as well.

Jim Eltringham is the Vice President of Online Campaigns at Advocacy Group, Inc.

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