6 February 2006
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The supply of professional services is viewed as a problem by the Government. One 'solution' is to try to make the market for professional services like that of other goods. "I don't see why consumers shouldn't be able to get legal services as easily as they can buy a tin of beans," said Department for Constitutional Affairs minister Bridget Prentice last November at the launch of the white paper for legal reform 'The future of legal services: putting the consumer first', which laid the foundations for opening up the legal professional services market.
There is another 'solution': for the professions themselves to improve their own practice and their own professionalism. While both paths can be followed, there comes a point when pursuing one reduces the chances of pursuing the other effectively.
Professionalism has taken serious knocks in recent years. Scandals involving professions as diverse as medicine (Harold Shipman), accounting (Enron and Arthur Andersen) and insurance (Eagle Star) are continually in the public eye. The Government, particularly through the Office of Fair Trading, is coming to view professions as possessing unwarranted monopoly privilege from which consumers need protection. Not only must consumers be protected from high-profile misdeeds, but also from inflated prices for professional services, unclear offerings from professionals and ineffectual complaints handling. The solution proposed is to remove impediments to free competition in professional services.
However, there are penalties for going too far down this path. Most professional services cannot be provided like a tin of beans. Most professional activities require substantial initial qualifications as well as regular top-ups of continuing professional development in order to provide an adequate professional service. However, more is needed. Professionals need to ensure that what they know is used appropriately for the client, and often to protect the general public as well. Clients frequently do not know, and cannot know, precisely what services they require until advised by a professional. Professionals will also always know more than the clients about the quality and value of the services they are providing. This makes clients vulnerable to professionals. Ultimately, this cannot be censured by legal requirements or by the availability of alternative sources of supply. It relies on the ethical behaviour of the professional.
The professions are aware of past shortcomings. One response has been to review their ethical programmes. According to research carried out by the Professional Associations Research Network (PARN), 58 per cent of 129 UK professional bodies carried out reviews of their ethical codes in the past two years. PARN has produced a model, The Matrix, to support such reviews, based on research into more than 70 ethical codes. At a PARN ethics conference in 2005, professional bodies discussed how they support the implementation of their ethical codes. The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants is one such professional body that has re-evaluated its ethics programme in order to make it more relevant and supportive. It plans to raise its ethical profile through 'roadshows' and case studies, which it hopes will provide the foundation for future trust and professionalism. On 27 June, PARN will be holding its annual conference to discuss issues of professionalism and how to ensure its place at the heart of professional practice.
We may apply the biblical adage 'live by the sword, die by the sword' to the Government's pursuit of marketisation. Follow or force economies down the market path in all aspects and suffer the consequences of social loss for the paths abandoned. Social change is path-dependent. Changes in one direction generally mean that other paths cannot be pursued.
Andy Friedman, director, Professional Associations Research Network