Why the professions are being pulled from their pedestal

Fifty years ago, the professional classes were revered by society. But long-held restrictive practices and a reluctance to accept reforms have contributed to a gradual loss of public trust and respect. They must act if they are to remain relevant.

by Paul Morrell
Last Updated: 25 Jan 2016

Credit: Simon Spilsbury

As the first issue of this magazine went to press in March 1966, I was about to head off to university to read for a degree that would lead on to a professional qualification to be a chartered surveyor. There was an element of parental pressure in this, from a father who swore that it would offer job security for life - a preoccupation for someone who came of age in the 1930s. He was right; but now any promise of a right to a living has long gone, swept away by 50 years of gradual but relentless change.

So while members of the professions have long regarded themselves as different (by which they probably mean 'better') from those without letters after their name, it is becoming ever less clear exactly how they are different.

In short, just what is it that the professions actually profess about themselves that their prospective clients and society should value?

Meanwhile, the professions cling to the idea that they are important to society, but society itself seems to be less and less respectful or trustful of them. With an enfranchised, educated and well-informed public, a right to challenge has replaced any earlier expectation of deference.

This has come into topical focus with the strike by NHS junior hospital doctors. Such a move would have been just about unthinkable five decades ago. If not a sense of professional duty, then at least a sense that being a professional called for a different approach, would have precluded it.

Maybe lunch at a Whitehall club would have had everything smoothed over by teatime. The days of smoke-filled rooms have gone too now, and that's no bad thing, but it is still a jolt to see doctors on a picket line waving placards with messages indistinguishable from those of, say, an Underground drivers' walkout - and pleading that 'tired doctors kill people' can't do much to reverse the loss of public trust.

To put this change of attitude in context, it is worth looking back to the beginnings of the professions; or rather to a time when they organised themselves as a class (and class had a lot to do with it); and to consider whether the qualities claimed by them have stood the test of time.

In the UK, the growth in those classed as professions, beyond the founding bodies related to medicine, the law and divinity, and measured by the grant of Royal Charters, began slowly. Once the only way of incorporating a company, the first Royal Charters were granted in the 13th century (to the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford), and most of those who followed were trade guilds, academic institutions or charities. The first chartered body that might be recognised as a traditional profession today was the Royal College of Physicians (established in 1518), and only three or four more professions were added in the next 300 years. Otherwise, this was the territory of the likes of Wax Chandlers and Hat-Band Makers.

In the 19th century, though, the Industrial Revolution sparked an explosive growth in commerce, and the change that accompanied it undoubtedly opened the door to exploitation as well as innovation. New rules for business were required, which played perfectly to the Victorians' subtly balanced desires for status, social respectability and wealth; and all three were accessible through the grant of a Royal Charter. So, the first 300 charters having been granted over a period of more than 600 years, the next 300 were granted in just 80 years, including many of the traditional professions we recognise today - solicitors, accountants, engineers, architects and surveyors (and, in 1890, even journalists).

The scope and allocation of roles in the construction industry that I joined in 1970 were pretty well cast in stone, though. There was still an element of 'knowing your place' and there was a clear hierarchy, with the architect at its head (the acronym for the Royal Institute of British Architects was alternatively said to stand for 'Remember I'm the Bloody Architect'), a position reinforced by most of the other construction professionals depending for their work upon nomination by the architect. This in turn meant that advice to the client (who paid the bill, after all) was filtered - either literally, by reinterpretation by the architect, or tacitly, by knowing what the architect would not like to be said.

As a young graduate (and that was another change in entry to the professions: I was the first cognate degree holder to join the firm in its history), I found this restrictive, frustrating - and ultimately career-limiting. I could not contemplate 40 years of working as an accomplice, and of being told, when making a suggestion for an alternative design that might deliver better value to the client, that it was not my job to have ideas.

The roles were, however, ossified by the rules of the institutions themselves. Many of these rules could be seen as restricting the number of entrants, on the grounds of maintaining quality (but also, of course, maintaining prices - whether that was their purpose or just their effect). Others were designed to limit competition between members - so fees were fixed under mandatory scales, and members were prohibited from advertising. Still more perpetuated Victorian ideas of trade - so that members of most construction professions could not work for construction companies.

All of this lent support to Adam Smith's contention that: 'People of the same trade seldom meet together ... but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices' or George Bernard Shaw's 'conspiracies against the laity'.

And then along came Margaret Thatcher - probably more enthusiastic about Smith than Shaw but, either way, possessing a distaste for closed shops that was not restricted to the trade unions. There began both a programme and a habit of deregulation that continues to this day. To the outrage of many, mandatory fee scales were outlawed, and this was seen as a full-on attack. Personally I had no problem with it. I had seen the waste that price maintenance engendered, and always thought it curious that the professions felt that their clients needed protecting against their own inability to judge a fair fee. It also created its own 'Big Bang' as, under pressure from members seeking to compete in an increasingly 'commercial' world, the institutions set about relaxing their more arcane rules.

Nonetheless, the suspicions remain, from the outside looking in, that the professions still seek protectionism and restraint of trade; and from the inside looking out, that they are slow to change and so obstruct the development of new and better ways of working and collaborating. All of this points to a natural conservatism that runs the double risk of alienating the young and failing to respond to the pressures for change.

Alongside this, the loss of public trust, a belief in the omniscience of the internet as a source of advice, and a prevailing political mood against regulation and protectionism, there has been a major shift in the way that companies in general, and the professions in particular, go about their business. Professional services firms were once of small or medium size, generally operating as partnerships, and offering a single service. Now, however, there are multidisciplinary consultancies of more than 100,000 people. Indeed, the practice of which I was formerly senior partner was acquired after my retirement, by such a consultancy quoted on the New York Stock Exchange. Whether that was a good thing or a bad one (and I have a view), no one can think that the culture and constraints under which those working in the firm operated were unaffected.

Probably even more influential is the fact that firms are looking to new operating structures, such as external ownership. Grant Rumbles, who used to be chief executive of major engineering practice Mouchel, was quoted in 2014 as saying, 'There's every chance at some point that Mouchel will come back to the market ... Mouchel is always potentially for sale, because every business is ultimately for sale for the right price.'

Such a proposition would have been unthinkable (or at least unsayable) in the profession that I joined a working lifetime ago.

Since that announcement, the practice has indeed been sold - and, by the way, sold to a construction company, which the professionals working in the practice might previously have regarded as being on 'the other side'.

So the question remains: just what are the distinctive qualities of a profession that separate it from 'just another job'? Speaking in a House of Lords debate in 1992, Lord (Henry) Benson, a former senior partner of Coopers & Lybrand, offered a list of the distinguishing characteristics of a profession that is hard to better. These included:

  • Control by a governing body, which ensures fair and open competition, directs the behaviour of its members, sets adequate standards of entry-level education and continuing competence, and sets ethical rules and professional standards.
  • Rules and standards which are higher than those established by the general law, and are designed for the benefit of the public and not for private advantage.
  • A membership which is independent in thought and outlook, but subordinates its private interests in favour of support for the governing body, and observes its rules and standards.
  • Disciplinary action if rules and standards are not observed, or in the event of bad work.
  • Providing leadership.

To these I would add, at institutional level, an obligation to develop and disseminate a genuine body of knowledge and, at individual level, the requirement to exercise judgement.

But the characteristics that the professionals themselves keep coming back to relate to ethics and service of the public interest. Exactly what a commitment to ethical conduct means, however, remains confused. Even FIFA has a code of ethics; and although the professional codes are full of good words like integrity, competence, independence, transparency and so forth, the record shows that it's pretty hard to get thrown out of an institution without actually breaking the law or some more introspective procedural rule of the institution's. In the meantime, the implicit claim to some form of moral superiority is both arrogant and misplaced.

There is also something going on in business, which further blurs the distinction between the professions and the rest. Just as the professions seek to become more business-like, business itself is at least making noises about moving in the other direction, recognising that the single-minded pursuit of shareholder returns is probably not good for its long-term health, frequently challenges the interests of society, and in extremis may compromise capitalism itself. So CSR and 'greenwash' may be evolving into a more genuine sense of responsibility.

This in turn makes the professions' claim to serve the public interest even harder to pin down. Has any member of any institution ever been sanctioned for failing to put the public interest above their client's or their own? When, like the doctors, professions deal directly with a single client, then there is rarely a conflict between individual and collective interest.

That is not, however, the case when the end result of the service is not just the advice, but the product of that advice - a cigarette, a car or a building perhaps.

A building does not have to start melting people's wing mirrors, to understand that it will have far-reaching environmental consequences. Almost everyone who works in the built environment is concerned about this - but not all of their clients are, and certainly not to the extent of wanting to spend more than they are legally required to. That gives rise to the most difficult question of all: What do you do, as a professional, when your principles point one way, and a client's needs or wants point in another?Responses to this tend to divide into two.

The majority, in what we might call the 'we have to eat' camp, say that people do the best that they can to persuade the client to do things in a particular way, but if they're not persuaded then the payer calls the tune. Others, in the 'touch pitch and be defiled' camp, argue that one measure of true professionalism is not just those things that you will do, but also the things that you won't - and that should include not working in certain places in the world (Azerbaijan, China, Israel and Qatar all being recent candidates), or for certain clients (armaments, oil, tobacco), or on certain types of project (such as prisons or housing developments that can be labelled 'gentrification').

In reality, there has to be a limit to the extent to which institutions and their members are responsible for solving all the problems of the world. Many of them are essentially matters of personal conscience; and while some practitioners may decline a commission they don't like the smell of, others argue that this puts them at a disadvantage relative to members who do not share their concern, or are just less squeamish. They consequently seek collective action, but it is a curious kind of conscience that accepts self-denial only when all others are denied too.

How, on the other hand, does one prevent what the governor of the Bank of England recently called 'ethical drift' - a gradual erosion of standards as they slide towards a bad place that no responsible professional would have set as a destination? Whatever the answer, the shift in the status of the professions has to be acknowledged as tectonic, and it would take an equal and opposite (and unlikely) coincidence of forces to shift things back again.

It would be wrong to call this a crisis. The change is too gradual for that. The professions perform a valuable role, and they have shown themselves to be adaptable. The change is nonetheless inexorable, and has the potential to amount to an existential threat. So if they are to continue to enjoy a special status in society (and, let us be honest, in the marketplace), then they need to come up with a progressive plan.

Above all, in my own industry, practitioners and their institutions will need to overcome a tendency to adversarialism that is taught in the professional cradle (on one of my first days at work I was told, 'Just remember, my boy, that the contractor is a bastard and the architect is a **** and you will be fine'); and a reluctance to cooperate at institutional level that, as emerged from the report of a Commission that I chaired recently ('Collaboration for Change: The Edge Commission Report on the Future of Professionalism'), borders on the pathological.

If they can get their act together, though, there is an opportunity for the professions to find a new position for themselves that captures the best of the values of their past, while being relevant to 21st-century circumstances, valuable to their members, society and the challenges we face. This opportunity lies in regaining control of the very things that are claimed to differentiate their members: forward-looking educational standards; benchmarking the expertise of members (perhaps through a public feedback system like TripAdvisor); a transparent and enforced code of ethics; moving from a tendency to exclusivity (centred on members' interests) to one of inclusivity (centred on a defined duty to serve the public interest); the development and dissemination of a relevant body of knowledge; and a demonstration of leadership on some of the great issues of the day.

This would show that there is more potential in the professions than is contemplated in Bridget Prentice saying, when a minister in the Department of Constitutional Affairs, 'I don't see why consumers should not be able to get legal services as easily as they can buy a tin of beans.'

It would also then represent a vocation which, looking back, I would have loved to join 50 years ago - and so one that young people should want to join today.

Of course, the professions (or their institutions) could choose to stick to their own, often inward-looking, programmes, and pay no attention to the longer-term trends affecting their status. Nothing dramatic will happen immediately as a consequence of that, they will probably survive. Instead they run the risk of irrelevance. People with specialist skills will find other ways of proving their credentials, and alternative structures through which they can both practise and find fellowship.

That would be a wasted opportunity - and one that would represent a betrayal of the very public interest that they claim to serve. The alternative proposed does not call for lobbying government for expenditure on anything that would create work for members; nor for the promotion of a single pet solution.

Instead it calls for imagination, innovation and information based on a genuinely advanced body of knowledge, pointing out to policy and decision-makers the different ways in which these problems might be solved, and the implications of each.

This is the territory claimed by the professions, and if they could occupy it justifiably, then that would be in the public interest.

Paul Morrell is a chartered surveyor, and former government construction tsar

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

A mini case study in horizon scanning

Swissgrid has instituted smart risk management systems for spotting things that could go wrong before...

Interview ghosting: Stop treating job seekers like bad dates

Don’t underestimate the business impact of a simple rejection letter.

5 avoidable corporate disasters

And the lessons to learn from them.

Dressing to impress: One for the dustbin of history?

Opinion: Businesswomen are embracing comfort without sacrificing impact. Returning to the office shouldn't change that....

How to motivate people from a distance

Recognising success in a remote or hybrid environment requires a little creativity, says Insight SVP...

What pushy fish can teach you about influence at work

Research into marine power struggles casts light on the role of influence and dominant bosses...