By Sarah Hathaway, head of ACCA UK
Trust: over the last year, perhaps even longer, the “T” word seems to have been everywhere, from whether we can trust the food we eat to whether we can trust our financial experts (Libor), our media (Leveson) and even our health services (The Francis Inquiry into the NHS).
The professions have a massive part to play in rebuilding and sustaining trust – that was the main outcome of a timely event I attended a couple of weeks ago, organised by ACCA for Professions for Good. Representing 1.2 million practitioners, Professions for Good is a collaboration of the bodies responsible for the entry policy, professional standards and qualifications across many of the UK’s largest professions – from accountants to lawyers. ACCA is a member, along with The Science Council, ICAEW, The Bar Council, RICS, RIBA, RAE, CMI, CIOT, AAT, CII and CIPD.
This roundtable was Chatham House, so under the Rule I am unable to attribute who said what, but it was a lively debate attended by lawyers, accountants, an MP, a journalist and a self-confessed marketing professional (myself) to look at how we can rebuild trust in the communities and society in which we live and work.
This ACCA roundtable was the final in a series of three such discussions organised for Professions For Good – The ICAEW focussed on Trust and Business, while the AAT conducted theirs about Trust and Professional Careers. Gillian Fawcett, our head of public sector, chaired our event, where we looked at a wide range of questions – from where public distrust stems, to whether there is a greater need to instil ethics through education in professional services.
The evidence is uncomfortable reading: when it comes to trust, an Ipsos MORI Poll in 2011 showed that people trusted doctors to tell the truth more than any other profession, with almost 9 out of 10 of those questioned trusting them. They were followed by teachers, professors, judges, scientists, the clergy and the police. The least trusted in the poll were politicians, with just 14 per cent believing them to tell the truth.
Edelman’s global trust barometer, now in its 13th edition, has also recently revealed that one in five respondents believes a business or governmental leader will actually tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue. This year’s Barometer demonstrates a serious crisis of confidence in leaders of both business and government.
Aside from these findings, recent public sector scandals such as the Stafford Hospital care failures, Baby P, the phone hacking saga, MPs’ expenses and even the recent “Plebgate” story appearing in the media have all done the professions, government and other public sector bodies no favours in improving trust within the community and society.
A report presented to the Prime Minister in January 2013 from the Committee for Standards in Public Life also highlighted recent unethical – or in some cases possibly criminal – behaviour on the part of the police, the historical behaviour of the armed forces, police and Security Service in Northern Ireland, high profile problems in hospitals and care homes, the BBC, national journalists and banks. The report importantly pointed out that “the factors which influence behaviour in the public sector are likely to be very similar to those which drive high or low standards in other sectors.”
So it appears that no sector – private or public – is immune from the loss of trust; the accountancy profession itself is not immune, but I don’t think as a profession we are complacent about the future. I meet plenty of professional accountants who are working to deliver public value, which for ACCA means acting in the public interest, promoting ethical business and growing the economy. But going back to our Trust roundtable, the outcome and conclusion was all down to three simple words – the need for accountability, transparency and openness; for me, the accountancy profession is eminently placed to deliver these three seemingly simple – but challenging – things.
And there lies the challenge for all the professions. I’d love to hear from readers what they think the professions should be delivering, and what being a professional means.