design

Designing better government with open government at the CFPB

Today, the local .gov startup goes live. While ConsumerFinance.gov went online back in February, today, on the anniversary of H.R.4173, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Board officially launches today, with Richard Cordray nominated to lead it. The Sunlight Foundation is liveblogging the Senate hearings this morning, for those interested.

Many questions about the future of the agency remain (Wall Street and Republicans have not been sparing offering criticism over the past year) but credit where credit is due: the new consumer bureau has been open to ideas about how it can do its work better. This approach is what led New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber to muse last week that “its openness thus far suggests the tantalizing possibility that it could be the nation’s first open-source regulator.”

When a regulator asks for help redesigning a mortgage disclosure form, something interesting is afoot.

It’s extremely rare that an agency gets built from scratch, particularly in this economic and political context. It’s notable, in that context, that the 21st century regulator has embraced many of the principles of open government in leveraging technology to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the agency, spoke to how open government, citizens and technology factor into the bureau’s work earlier this year:

Better government by design

Open government isn’t just about first principles for accountability, open data, social media, transparency, cultural change, citizen participation, innovation or feedback loops, however, though all of those factors matter. As the work of Code For America has shown this year, design matters in open government. Better citizen experience, communication and customer service depends on better design.

Lois Beckett aptly connected how the dots about why design matters to the CFPB’s work this week at ProPublica, where she wrote about the challenges the innovative financial regulator faces as it starts up.

…as the political battle rages on and media scrutiny focuses on Elizabeth Warren’s political future, little attention has been given to what the bureau has actually done. And its initial efforts are interesting, especially because they show a commitment to open government and real public engagement. (Ron Lieber noted that its blog actually accepts comments—”unlike, say, the White House’s.”)

The bureau’s mission is to create transparency in an industry dominated by confusing claims and mouse print. Good design isn’t just a perk here—it’s fundamental to the bureau’s regulatory efforts.

Case in point: One of the CFPB’s top priorities has been streamlining the federally required mortgage disclosure documents. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s worse on paper: two separate, complicated forms that are confusing for customers and, the bureau contends, also burdensome for many mortgage servicers to fill out.

The goal is to replace them with a single, two-page document that clearly answers the questions: “Can I afford this mortgage?” and “Can I get a better deal somewhere else?”

Two of the potential designs for the new form each have a note at the top, in bold print: “You have no obligation to choose this loan. Shop around to find the best loan for you.”

The bureau’s other projects include improving transparency about credit card prices and fees, the exchange rates used for remittance transfers of money to other countries and the credit scores sold to consumers and creditors.

Using heatmaps and 13,000 clicks to understand pain points for mortgage disclosure? Data-driven government may have legs.

It’s not just the heatmaps: the CFPB reports that they read and analyzed the comments themselves. “There is symmetry here,” write the Web staff. “Heatmaps make it easier to understand and compare data. We want to improve disclosure so it is easier for consumers and lenders to understand and compare when they evaluate mortgage loans.”

As the newest .gov startup continues to scale, we’ll see if more experiments in open government design are given “freedom to fail,” a latitude that the father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, has hailed as an essential ingredient for government innovation. Stay tuned, and keep at eye on the CFPB.

National Archives launches redesigned Archives.gov under open government plan

Today the National Archives launched its redesign of Archives.gov redesign.

“It’s essential for the National Archives to have a user-friendly online presence,” said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in a prepared statement. Ferriero is the first Archivist to blog, tweet (@dferriero), and launch a Facebook page. “We hope to reach new audiences while still engaging our long-time users, researchers and visitors. This redesign – part of the National Archives flagship Open Government Initiative – reflects the ongoing effort to engage the public and make records of the National Archives easier to find and use.”

If you’re not following the work of the National Archivist, today is a good day to reflect on his progress and the importance of his work. Reflect on what he told the New York Times:

How many digitized records should be available online? “If I had my way,” he replied, “everything.”

The Obama administration has also given the National Archives responsibility for reviewing the declassification of 400 million pages of secret documents by the end of 2013.

Mr. Ferriero’s goal, he said, is “to ensure that we have the user at the center of our thinking — historians, genealogists, open government folks. What can we do to make their lives easier?”

Each of these flagship initiatives, many of which are listed at the WhiteHouse.gov open government innovations gallery, are supposed to deliver upon the signature elements of each agency’s mission. In terms of the National Archives, the redesign was “intended to encourage online user participation in the redesign of our website.” Does it deliver?

Here’s the old design of Archives.gov:

The research that preceded the redesign looked at what people do when they come to Archives.gov and what they do there.

Here are the results of the National Archives’ data analysis of Archives.gov “customers”:

How frequently do you visit this site?
69% First time
14% Every 6 months or less
9% About once a month
5% About once a week

In what role are you using the web site today?
30% Veteran or Veteran’s family
23% Genealogist or family historian
14% Educator or student
14% Researcher

What were you primarily looking for today?
28% Historical Documents
25% Veterans’ Service Records
19% Genealogy or family history information
9% Other

How would you most like to interact with this site?
41% Bookmark or tag pages
35% None
15% Receiving newsletters/email updates
8% Watching Vodcasts or video

The new Archives.gov was based in part on that feedback and user need:

On first glance, and after some time clicking around, the answer is a qualified “yes.” This version of the Archives.gov redesign came about through a vote on the homepage design using Ideascale and in-person events, receiving in total some 3,257 votes. The redesign includes streamlined access to historical documents and military service records, an important improvement, given the eye-opening statistic that 81 percent of Archives.gov visitors are looking for this information.

The new design is cleaner, features clearer organization of content and loaded more quickly on my mobile device. The search field, one of the critical features of any modern website, is larger and raised to greater prominence in the redesign. I don’t see a mobile version of the site yet, and there is as of yet “no app for that,” unlike, say, the Library of Congress. That may change.

With respect to another stated aim of the project, the redesign does prominently display the Archives.gov social media accounts, although in muted colors that, while fitting look and feel, don’t catch the eye. No social content is featured on the homepage or the dedicated section, though it’s not hard to find those accounts on the master list of social media. There are some real gems to be fond in there, particularly in the NARA Flickr feed.

Archives Wiki: Our Archives Wiki
Blog – NARAtions, the U.S. National Archives: Blog - NARAtions, the U.S. National Archives
Facebook – US National Archives: Facebook - US National Archives
Flickr – US National Archives Photostream: Flickr - US National Archives Photostream
RSS Feed – News from the U.S. National Archives: RSS Feed - News from the U.S. National Archives
Twitter – @ArchivesNews: Twitter - @archivesnews
YouTube – US National Archives Channel: YouTube - US National Archives Channel

There are a host of other accounts in there for regional archives, presidential libraries or specific topics. For more on the back story behind the design, read over the minutes from last month’s researcher meeting:

The website was last updated several years ago. This time, we are revising it to focus on tasks that people are trying to accomplish when they come to our website.

We collected information from researchers on what you wanted in a variety of ways over several months including asking staff, researchers, veterans, patrons in line at exhibits, etc. This is part of Open Government from December 2009. The Flagship initiative is to redesign by matching the needs of all users (researchers, educators, students, and those just browsing to see the founding documents).

We have the new website categorized into sections. There are five main sections: veterans, researchers, educators and students, locations, and our online store.

Other pages will focus on genealogy, Congress, records preservation, Federal records managers, publications, offices in NARA, and information about us in general. It also includes an agency index, FAQs, and social media (e.g., blogs like NARAtions and AOTUS).

The research section has basic information on how to do research at each of the facilities and links to specific topics like the Civil War.

The new website rolls out next month in December. This is the first phase of the redesign. The focus is on the home page, researchers, veterans, education, and will then move onto other areas.

The 1940s census will be available online in 2012 spring.

“Hire a Researcher” will still be available. All content will migrate over. You do not need to resubmit information. All current information will come over. If you need to resubmit information, we will let you know. We do an annual contact check to revise the list.

This is a significant improvement and one that the Archives staff should be commended upon. If you have feedback, they’ve made it clear that they’re listening: comment on the NARAtions Blog or write to webprogram@nara.gov.