The professions: do we need them?

Richard Spencer challenges the professions to demonstrate they are worthy to continue to exist.

Richard-Professions

What is a profession? Is it just a collective noun for a group of people who have degrees, earn a lot of money and run a private members club; or does it capture a meaning that is more than the sum of these parts? Does it describe a group of people that does more than is legally required, that aspires to something higher – the public interest perhaps? And what does that really mean in the 21st century?

Well, I think a glimmer of an answer appears in a blog by Michael Izza, CEO of The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Referring to the Times’ campaign against tax avoidance that highlighted how some of the wealthiest in our society are able to reduce their tax bill to near zero he said “I believe that there is no place for our profession in the creation or maintenance of these sorts of tax schemes”. In other words whilst perfectly legal this is not an activity that characterises a profession; it is “beyond the bounds of what is reasonable and responsible tax planning”.

I also found a rather good paper in the British Actuarial Journal by C.S. Bellis that discusses what a profession is. Bellis notes three defining characteristics: knowledge and training; normative elements such as ethics and a commitment to the public good; and belonging to a membership organisation guaranteeing the first two.

Low level of public trust

The state of public trust in business – and that must include “the professions” – is pretty parlous. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013, which surveyed over “31,000 respondents in 26 markets around the world and measured their trust in institutions, industries and leaders”, opens with the words “The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates a serious crisis of confidence in leaders of both business and government.”

The Barometer shows that whilst trust in institutions including businesses is rising modestly, the quality of that trust is feeble: the respondent’s category for “Trust a great deal” is at 16 per cent in government and 17 per cent in business and media.

This is not good. Business is not separate from society; it is a social activity, literally being busy. To make this clear, the now well-worn quote of Bjorn Stigson, when president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, that “businesses do not succeed in societies that fail”, needs to be read alongside the Kofi Anan comment that it is the absence not the presence of business that has condemned the much of the world to poverty.

The loss of public trust is or should be a cause for concern. I would argue that the accountancy profession has a purpose that is about building trust in information. More specifically the audit profession has a unique position in the economic space of maintaining the public’s trust in companies’ activities. The accountants are therefore central to finding a way forward. The financial crisis raised the question in the public mind of where was the audit profession in all of this and what was it doing? After all didn’t we trust them to tell us if these institutions were not performing as we were led to believe?

This has meant a lot of negative press has come the auditors’ way. Of course it is important to have open enquiry into what went wrong and why and to hold those guilty of shameful conduct to account as well as prosecuting criminal activity. In the context of the financial crisis we (society) have been singularly reluctant and slow to identify individuals who should be held to account, conveniently blaming the system instead. (Strangely when our cities broke out in riots a couple of summers ago the courts cranked in to full steam with impressive efficiency to prosecute the individuals – apparently the system played no part here). In the end the systems breakdown and individuals behave badly. However, one does wonder if in the public mind it seems as though the professions have a get-out-of-jail-free-card (the system) that isn’t available to ordinary folk.

Meeting our social purpose

All of that being said, it doesn’t get us very far away from being rather like the chorus in Greek tragedy, characterising all the awful things that have happened (usually off-stage) but with no suggestions about what to do about it. For this reason we began the AuditFutures enquiry. We are asking how the audit profession can be part of the answer to restoring the public’s trust rather than being or appearing to be part of the problem. Implicit in this is a question about what does it mean to be a profession – what is that highest aspiration above and beyond the law that can be aspired to? Also it invites the question of what does it mean to be a professional? The answer to this must, if it is to meaningful, incorporate a notion of acting in the interests of the public and not the self; it must be about a social purpose.

We expect our doctors, our nurses and our teachers to be driven by more than financial return, why should we not expect the same of our auditors? If we can find a positive answer around this then yes I do believe we need the professions because then the whole is more than the sum of the parts. If we can’t then I’d say the professions are just private members clubs and I’m not sure we need them.