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Just what is "a profession"?

The role of social purpose.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

What is a profession? Is it just a collective noun for a group of folk 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 my own CEO at ICAEW. 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, Michael Izza wrote "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 asked a colleague, open and democratic fellow that I am, "what is a profession?" and she pointed me to a rather good paper in the British Actuarial Journal by C.S. Bellis. Bellis notes three defining characteristics of a profession: knowledge and training; normative elements such as ethics and a commitment to the public good; and belonging to a membership organisation guarantees the first two. 

In my last blog I talked about the parlous state of public trust in business and I would argue that the accountancy profession, rooted as it is in the audit 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 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. This is something that we have been singularly reluctant and slow to do, blaming the system rather than the individuals. (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).

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 at ICAEW began an enquiry – to which all are welcome - called Audit Futures (AF). At AF we are asking how the audit profession can be part of the answer to restoring the public’s trust rather than being 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 an answer around this then yes I do believe we need the professions because then the whole is more than the sum of the parts.