The future of the professionals

These are timely. For the professions are under fire. The government has recently asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into them; something the Major government was tempted to do but stood back from, presumably because it was thought rightly or wrongly that most members of the professions voted Tory, and any enquiry would hurt.

We have seen it coming. The great professions – accountancy, law, doctoring, dentistry, and so on – were born in the days of enormous Victorian change. It was recognised that some things were too important, whether to the individual or to society, to be left entirely on their own. But at the same time of course we didn’t much like government – we still don’t – and government didn’t want to get in on management or regulation. Hence, our present Institutes, Societies, Royal Colleges, and so on, recognised by law, but apart from government. It’s a system which has worked pretty well. The professions managed to reconcile a number of varied and sometimes contradictory needs – developing their art and staying up to date, attracting good recruits, serving their clients and making a bob or so for themselves, and gaining and retaining the respect of society.

But that world has gone. The professions are now seen as slow, hampered by well-meaning attempts at democracy, and not always up to date even in the technical fields that they claim to master. Global pressures and new interfaces are not being recognised. People are more litigious and less ready to believe the expert. Mistakes are being made and “self-regulation” – always a misnomer – no longer satisfies society or governments. In short, society feels that professions don’t currently match up to its needs and expectations.

But what to do about it? For the professions are still needed. The work has to be done, and done well. New thinking and ideas are more than ever important. The imbalance between professional expertise and lay lack of knowledge has to be policed. Governments can’t do any of this. The answer surely is down to the professions themselves. Swinson lays out some interesting thoughts. Essentially, the need is for a modernisation of thinking and administration; more looking out of the window to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a more realistic relationship with the people being served. As Swinson puts it, professions are market structures serving changing markets. It’s these changing markets which many of the leaders of the professions have lost sight of.

  • Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management

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