Bring back our respectability

And the professions delivered in a way that commanded respect from both government and the public for their competence and trustworthiness.

But not anymore. The professions are seen as backward-looking and obstructive to new ideas and new entrants.

People have become increasingly litigious, losing their trust in institutions and becoming cynical about self-regulation. Factors such as IT, globalisation and internationalisation, and the blurring of traditional disciplines – whether in the accountancy, law, medical or engineering fields – were all perceived to demand change that did not seem to be forthcoming.

There has been a start. Moves on self-regulation address the increasing tension between this and the professions’ role as middle class trades unions. The Office of Fair Trading proposals moved for major changes in the legal profession and an effective break-up of the accounting profession in two, between big people spanning many disciplines and smaller people who don’t. But there is more to do.

The accountancy institutes are taking some steps, such as recognising the tension between practice and business and facing up to globalisation.

But even with what’s been done there are still a great number of steps to take. I was a member of the 2005 group set up some years back by the ICAEW, which tried to think through some of these things, but our ideas were shelved. More urgent thinking, updated, is needed now, and this should be the aim of the new president in the next month or so.

What all the professions, not just the accountancy profession, should do, is to reach back to seek to re-establish the respect and relevance they used to have. This means looking at the total product, as the consultants say, and not just at the individual processes.

And it means approaching the job with a determination to see it through, regardless of the difficulties, which well-meaning efforts at democratisation often bring. The professions must make themselves fit for the 21st century themselves, otherwise somebody else will do it for them.

– Sir Peter Kemp is a member of the ICAEW and a former senior civil servant

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