2001: an English ICA odyssey

Given the outcry every time they try to change something, it is hardly surprising the powers that be at the English ICA have adopted something of a softly-softly approach in their new ‘Strategy for the start of the 21st century’.

Now finalised and ready to be circulated among the institute’s intricate web of district societies, faculties, boards and committees, the paper sets out a blueprint of reforms designed to take the 115,000-strong body into the next century.

Radical changes are planned. Members will see changes in the way they pay their subscriptions and fees, the way they communicate with the institute, and in the structure of the 119 year-old institute.

Top officials have already tried to circulate an earlier version of the strategy, but were prevented from doing so by a last-minute backlash.

A great fanfare was planned to coincide with its unveiling in April this year with institute public relations officials told to contact Accountancy Age and other publications with a view to institute big-wigs pontificating in print on the new strategy and its importance.

But the announcement was ambushed at the 11th hour as representatives of the district societies got wind of plans to make them self-funding and managed to persuade council members to block publication. Institute officials were left with red-faces and newspaper editors with a last-minute hole to fill on their opinion pages. The episode was later blamed on a ‘communications breakdown’ and ‘project teams’ were hastily set up to deal with the dispute.

This time, conscious of this earlier fiasco, institute officials appear to have forsaken a big announcement for a more low-key introduction of the strategy, watered down to deal with the sensibilities expressed by the district societies and other groups.

Wary of a second late ambush of its plans, the institute has modified the strategy putting much more emphasis on consultation and discussion.

It is also heavily laced with assurances that no significant changes will be made to existing arrangements without a better alternative and the approval of council. In terms of opposition to the strategy, the two danger areas for the institute lie with the district societies and the general practitioners board.

Despite the problems caused by the societies earlier this year, the institute still appears determined to revamp the way they are run and financed, with an emphasis on some form of self-funding for certain services.

Representatives of the societies have now climbed on board the project teams, which are not due to report until the end of the year. Only then will precise details of the new funding system emerge.

The GPB, a lively group which is popular with small and medium-sized practices, is to be reorganised into a ‘member focus’ for practice. There are also discussions about starting a general practice faculty – modelled on the existing faculties like tax, audit and corporate finance which members pay extra to belong to. These existing faculties are regarded as a success story by both members and officials who are keen on extending the ‘user-pays’ principle in the delivery of institute services.

Dame Sheila Masters, the KPMG partner famed for her robust leadership style and reformist tendencies, has recently taken over the institute’s presidency. Although her style is more direct than that of her immediate predecessor Chris Swinson and of president-in-waiting Graham Ward, from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the three have been working together as a triumvirate to drive through the reforms which they believe are essential for the institute’s success in the next century.

The aims, identified through an extensive series of working parties and research projects over the last three years, are to make the institute more accountable to members and more businesslike. Worthy though these may seem, any attempts to reform the institute appear fraught with difficulty.

The failure of the attempt to introduce optional papers, or ‘electives’, into the institute’s exam syllabus earlier this year, due to opposition from members, prompted fears that some big firms may stop training through the institute.

Opposition to reform is variously blamed on ‘backwoodsmen’, the apathy of the majority of the institute’s members and the opinion held by some that the reformers are destroying things that already work well.

Dame Sheila and her fellow office holders will be keeping their fingers crossed that the modified strategy will not provoke the usual chorus of opposition that has come to characterise reaction to efforts to modernise the institute.


‘Project teams’ are working on the following:

More use of email and the Internet A leading-edge members-only area of the institute’s website is envisaged. Rapid consultation and tailored communication will be boosted by improving the existing electronic database of members.

District societies to be overhauled Greater emphasis on district societies funding their own activities and more use of digital technology for local delivery of services. Some local services to be centrally provided, but district societies will be given the option to enter into contracts with the institute to provide them. More autonomy for societies.

Subscription system to be revamped Members likely to be asked to pay a basic subscription for those services deemed to be core services, and then asked to pay more for extra services they want to use – greater emphasis on ‘user pays’.

Size of ruling council to be slashed Proposals to reduce the size of the council from around 80 to nearer 50 are being considered. A review is under way to ensure it is representative of the various segments of the institute’s membership. Committee structure to be overhauled.

GPB and BCAB replaced by ‘member focuses’ The general practitioners board and the Board for Chartered Accountants in Business will be replaced by practice and business ‘member focuses’. They will find out what identifiable groups of members want and ask the institute to provide them. New focuses will be developed – initially one for younger members and one for overseas members.

Practice review scheme to be introduced This will be aimed at helping firms improve their quality control. The scheme will be voluntary and separate from the institute’s monitoring activities, but some sort of ‘kitemark’ could be awarded to firms meeting set standards.

More faculties in the pipeline Currently specialising in areas like tax, audit and corporate finance, these are regarded as a resounding success. They are to be developed further, and the feasibility of establishing a general practice faculty is being considered.

Better contact with trainees Institute to consider a new trainee category of membership, and services to be increased beyond present student council and education directorate.

Related reading