Just what is "a profession"?

The role of social purpose.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability ICAEW

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.