Last December, Senator Lindsey Graham described the Obama administration’s new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as “something out of the Stalinist Era.” Forced collectivization of agriculture, the purging of political foes and the bourgeoisie, rapid industrialization, and a cult of personality kept afloat by aggressive propagandizing are arguably the most notable things to come out of Stalin’s three decades at the head of a young Soviet Union — not, you know, an almost-hip start-uppy bureaucracy.
While Stalin likely couldn’t have conceived of such a thing, would he have hired someone who worked on South Park, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to work at one of his new bureaucracies? Well, that’s a bit loaded down with hypotheticals, but let’s go with no — he definitely wouldn’t. Barack Obama’s CFPB did. Suzy Khimm at the Washington Post wrote an interesting profile of the agency, which tells us how it actually works — not how some half-wit Senator would like us to think it works.
It’s a lot more like today Silicon Valley than 1940’s Moscow:
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.
Scratch that — that’s exactly what the Kremlin was like.