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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Heading to Harvard –  a senior fellowship to write my book on innovation and regulation

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Heading to Harvard – a senior fellowship to write my book on innovation and regulation

Jo Ann Barefoot

I’m delighted to share some news about me.  I’ve been offered a Senior Fellowship at Harvard’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government in the John F. Kennedy School of Government to write my book.

A year ago, I left Treliant with plans to produce “the book that hasn’t been written on the financial crisis,” exploring what happened to consumers and what should happen now.  As I worked on it, though, I found the topic morphing under my fingertips at the keyboard.  My research, conversations, and thinking kept bringing me back to one theme, one force that will make consumers’ lives dramatically better, or frighteningly worse – or both – in the years ahead.  That force is technology.

Exactly a half-century ago, Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed launched the consumer movement and with it, a long public policy push to protect people through regulation. I participated in some of this in my early Washington career. Looking back, the phrase that comes to my mind is, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually, some regulatory reforms were clearly beneficial.  Others, not so much – many brought costs that outweigh their benefits. Still others originally made sense, but lost usefulness over time. Those, along with many that outright failed, generally linger on.

Through it all, our laws, rules, and regulatory agencies have accumulated and political debate has gradually calcified around a binary argument in which one side almost always wants more regulation, and the other nearly always wants less.

My book will argue that what’s needed today is different regulation. The existing framework was created to address 20th century issues using 20th century logic and methods. Suddenly, now, the digital age is making it both possible to do vastly better, and necessary to rethink what and how we regulate. With innovation rapidly reshaping consumer behaviors and disrupting traditional industries, change will overwhelm many aspects of the current system.  

I’m going to propose a new approach. It will put the consumer at the center. It will push aside deadlocked debates, explore today’s top consumer risks and opportunities, assess diverse regulatory approaches, and offer a new framework. We’ll look at the tech trends, industry activities, innovation models, consumer habits, demographics, regulatory tools, and political realities, among many things. We will aim for the tech alchemy that expands access and fairness together, instead of trading one against the other.

In the end, I’ll suggest both practical, short-term steps and a strategic vision for the future.

Importantly, my book’s scope will reach beyond financial services, to tackle a broad spectrum of consumer protection regulation and industry practice.

My working title right now?  Safe At Any Speed: Protecting Consumers in the Digital Age. 

Or maybe, “Regulation Innovation,” a seeming oxymoron….

The Mossavar-Rahmani Center at Harvard “sponsors research, facilitates dialogue, and seeks answers to problems at the interface of the public and private sectors.”  Its Senior Fellows are remarkable people ranging from top federal and state executives to leading thinkers in business and law.  I am honored to join their ranks. 

My appointment begins July 1. I’ll be moving there for a year in September to do research and writing, teach a study group, convene thoughtful people, and learn from Boston’s fast-flowering culture of tech innovation.

I will continue my other consulting, public speaking, podcasts, and (soon-to-launch) series of video briefings on regulatory compliance strategy (albeit with tightened prioritization).

I’ll also be continuing to write this blog. My journey over the past year included having a significant health issue arise last summer. I’m fully well now, but it’s a reasonable guess that cutting edge technology saved my life by both detecting and treating the problem. No one is more passionate than I about the promise of innovation. Still, too many technophiles don’t pause to ponder the coming risks.

This blog, and my book, will strive to understand both the upside and downside of innovation, and how best to foster and leverage the good while preventing the bad.

It’s a daunting task. If you’re like me, reading this already has you thinking of issues, themes, objections, and ideas.  Share them with me!  Let’s have a conversation, here. And invite your friends – including from outside financial services – to subscribe to the blog and podcasts by email, enter your email address at www.jsbarefoot.com, and join in the brainstorming.

We need two things – courage to see and speak the truth, and cross-pollination of insight.

Tell me what you think!