Let’s take Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief (for the moment) Mick Mulvaney at face value when he says it’s not the responsibility of the agency – and by extension, the government or taxpayers – to “run a Yelp for financial services.” That’s the justification he’s given for his position that a database of complaints against banks and other companies will be maintained as required by law but not be publicly accessible, as it has been for years.
I don’t necessarily agree with that stance, but for the purposes of this post I’ll assume he’s making it in good faith, actually believing the government doesn’t need to be providing such a service for reasons other than being beholden to the financial industry in some way.
That kind of resource is still a good idea, isn’t it? Yelp and other services like it certainly have problems but are more useful than not in most cases. So if the federal government doesn’t want to provide public access to that data, wouldn’t it be in the best interest of the consumer public for a private company (ideally one outside the financial industry) to come in and fill the need?
At the same time Mulvaney believes public access isn’t in his job description, a new law has gone into effect requiring hospitals accepting Medicare to post their standard prices online. While those prices are likely going to be different from what patients or insurers would wind up paying, the idea is to provide some transparency into how much services cost and allow patients to be at least informed, even if circumstances mean they don’t have a lot of choices. Specifically, the report states pricing information must be machine-readable.
There’s real promise, I believe, in the idea that the kind of data collected by the CFPB should be made available publicly not necessarily in a polished user interface but as raw information that anyone can build a front end for. Provide it as a feed and let developers and researchers figure out how to slice and dice it in a way that they and the general public can use.
That kind of tool would be enormously valuable to consumers. They could view price information, read the comments that have been made regarding companies and more. All of that would allow them to make more informed decisions and force companies to compete on price, customer service and other details.
Of course that’s just why those companies don’t want that kind of database to be available. They generally lose power when the public has more information, which is why you see so instances of meddlesome media organizations being shut down or neutered by corporate owners.
Still, there’s potential in the idea. If laws were being crafted by individuals who understood the power of allowing access to raw data we could add a lot of transparency to the system.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.