Regulation Revolution: The Financial Conduct Authority and Digitally-Native Regulatory Design

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This is the most unique, and the most consequential, show we’ve ever done. If our thousands of listeners all think about it and especially if you share it widely, it has the most potential to actually change the financial regulatory world for the better and also in turn, therefore, to improve the financial world, too. It goes right into the heart of the most important work, being done by the most innovative people, on redesigning regulation for the digital age.

My guests are Chris Woolard and Nick Cook of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. We sat down to record it on the last night of their enormous, ambitious, mold-breaking tech sprint held in London a few weeks ago. This regtech sprint, the fifth one they’ve done, focused on how to use new technology to combat financial crime. The sprints -- which are hackathons -- play a dual role, both sparking new ideas on specific regulatory challenges and also innovating in regulatory process, itself.

I’ll set the scene for you. It was a Thursday night, dinner time, in the London offices of EY, in the Canary Wharf section of the city on the Thames, just a few blocks from the FCA’s building. EY generously offered their beautiful training facility for the sprint, because the FCA’s building is too small to hold the 400 people who were there by the end, or even the 260 who had been there for three days, working feverishly, day and night, to invent new solutions for money laundering. Those people had arrived on Tuesday morning and had self-formed into sixteen small teams, usually with total strangers, in a format mixing organizations and most importantly, mixing knowledge and skill types. Regulatory experts and AML experts and lawyers had worked elbow-to-elbow with tech experts, brainstorming ideas together and then translating these, live, into computer code, using test data provided by the participating tech companies.

We sat down for this recording in a quiet conference room, just as the main gathering began to shift into post-conference socializing and bonding and celebrating over food and drink.

It was one of those special moments where everyone feels elated and excited, and at the same time, completely drained. For me, as I think I say two or three times in this show, the sprint was the most fascinating and inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced. I hope that listening to it will inspire you to take up the FCA’s challenge to build on it in your own country and with your counterparts in other countries, and perhaps to take up their offer to help. People came to the sprint from all over the world, including, I’m especially happy to say, a substantial contingent of both regulators and financial companies from the United States (and also a new nonprofit, FinRegLab, with which I’m affiliated and which is building an empirical testing environment for regtech concepts in Washington).

The FCA is at the forefront of a global regulatory awakening about the need to innovate regulatory models as technology increasingly outpaces the speed at which government can change. Its most famous innovation is its Regulatory Sandbox, which enables fintech innovation to be tested in a controlled experiment under the regulator’s close scrutiny and is being emulated throughout the world. Less well-known is their equally important innovation on the regtech side, for which they invented this creative new format, the regulator’s TechSprint.

Both the sandbox and the sprints have three key elements essential for regulatory innovation. First, they make collaboration happen, especially between the regulatory and tech worlds. Second, they enable very fast learning by the regulator, through direct, hands-on experience. And third, and most crucially, they use experimentation. They provide a safe space for trying things out, testing, learning, shaping -- quickly and cheaply. They apply the techniques that technology innovators figured out years ago, about the need to start small, try something, adjust as you learn, and if some ideas are going to fail, let them “fail fast” in a controlled setting where critical lessons can be learned early, and no harm can be done.

These ideas are hard for people to grasp in the abstract, especially the notion that regulators need to get comfortable with learning through trial and error because there’s no other way to learn fast enough. I’m a former bank regulator and I know this idea is completely alien to regulatory culture and tradition, which have been designed, for good reason, to be careful and thorough and deliberate. A couple of years ago, a senior U.S. bank regulator told me that her agency had figured this out by spending time on the FCA’s website, reaching this epiphany that, the regulator doesn’t need to have all the answers -- even can’t have all the answers on tech change, before moving forward. It’s really the other way around. You have to move forward, to get to the answers. Chris and Nick describe the very same process -- as Chris calls it, the light bulb turning on, suddenly realizing it was riskier NOT to move, even though you’re not sure exactly what to do and what will happen. To me, the most interesting thing you’ll hear in this show is their voice as they describe this journey, the struggle toward creating a new way to work.

Again, this was the fifth tech sprint. Be sure listen to my two earlier FCA shows, one with Chris that explains the FCA’s regulatory sandbox and one with Nick on regtech. The regtech one featured the breakthrough, two-week sprint held last November, successfully proving that regulatory reporting requirements could be updated directly, computer-to-computer, by issuing a rule change in the form of code, rather than words. That one was like a regulatory moonshot -- it could eventually change regulation, itself. This new sprint last month, by contrast, focused on the specific use case that’s most ripe for regtech transformation -- anti-money laundering. The UN estimates that there’s $1.6 - $2 trillion in annual global financial crime, and that we catch less than 1 percent -- despite spending tens of billions of dollars each year. And it’s getting worse. The criminals and terrorists today use sophisticated technology and operate as networks, while banks and governments use old technologies, with data trapped in silos.

As Chris and Nick said, it will take a network, to beat a network.

Chris also said that a million children are trafficked, each year.

There’s a moment, in our conversation, where Nick says the sprint brings people to realizing that collectively, we can actually DO something about money laundering -- and you can hear the tone of excitement in his voice. For decades, we couldn’t really do much better, because we’ve had analog-era technology. Today we can use digitally-native tools. We can use them to fight crime and also to tackle nearly every other aspect of financial regulation -- all the areas where problems are so hard to solve. Financial inclusion. Consumer education. Preventing discrimination and predatory finance. Identity verification. Risk assessment. Financial reporting. New technology can make it all work better, and cost less, at the same time -- something that in the past was completely impossible.

Believe it or not, I’m actually curbing my enthusiasm for this. This is the tamped down version.

I think this is a regulatory revolution, beginning to move. Please listen to this episode, share it with everyone you know, and join in the dialogue.

More on Chris Woolard

Christopher Woolard is Executive Director of Strategy and Competition and an Executive Board Member of the Financial Conduct Authority. He’s responsible for policy, strategy, competition, market intelligence, consumer issues, the Chief Economist's department, communications and the Innovate initiative. He is chair of the FCA's Policy Steering Committee and a non-executive board member of the Payment Systems Regulator.

Christopher joined the FCA in January 2013. Previously he was Group Director and Content Board member at Ofcom. He has spent most of his career in regulation or policy development including working at the BBC and in government as a senior civil servant. He is a Sloan Fellow of London Business School.

More on Nick Cook

Nick Cook leads the FCA’s RegTech activities, including the FCA’s TechSprint events - the first events of their kind convened by a financial regulator. He is responsible for creating the FCA’s Analytics Centre of Excellence to drive the organization’s use of data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Nick is the FCA’s representative on the European Securities and Markets Authority’s (ESMA) Financial Innovation Standing Committee and an advisor to the RegTech for Regulators Accelerator Programme. Nick joined the Financial Services Authority (the FCA’s predecessor) in 2009, initially in its Enforcement and Market Oversight Division. Prior to joining the regulator, Nick qualified as a chartered accountant at KPMG Forensic.

More for our listeners

Full interview transcript.

We have many more great podcasts in the queue. We’ll talk with another community bank CEO, Mike Butler of Radius Bank. We’ll have two more episodes recorded this year at LendIt. One is a discussion of new research by LendUp and Experian, on credit reporting, and the other is with my friend Greg Kidd of Global ID. We also recorded two episodes at last month’s Comply 2018 conference in New York, with two regtech firms -- Compliance.ai, which offers machine-readable regulatory compliance, and Alloy, which has high-tech solutions for meeting the Know-Your-Customer rules in AML.

Speaking of LendIt, I’ll also be a guest on Peter Renton’s Lend Academy podcast, and he’ll be on our show soon as well, so watch for those.

I’m also excited we’ll have several leading members of Congress on the show in the coming weeks. So, stay tuned!

I hope to see you at upcoming speeches and events including:

Also, watch for upcoming information on my collaboration with Brett King on his new book on the future of finance -- we’ll have a show and events on that as well.

If you listen to Barefoot Innovation on iTunes, please leave a five star rating on the show to help us build it. Also please remember to send in your “buck a show” to keep it going, and come to jsbarefoot.com for today’s show notes and to join our email list, so you’ll get the newest podcast, newsletter, and blog posts. As always, please follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

And tell me what you’re thinking about digitizing regulation. Let’s widen this dialogue to more people, and more and more ideas!

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