Are you acting in the public interest?

The CEO of a leading professional body we were working with was keen to talk about the role of his organisation as public interest body. Our challenge to him was that once you have to explain what you mean by the public interest the point is lost. That it should be integral to the way that you behave and that your stakeholders should take this as a given. In short don’t claim, demonstrate. 

In 2012 the ICAEW published a paper that argued:

“Invoking the public interest requires justification of an ability and right to decide what is for the greater good, in the face of a natural suspicion that those proposing an action in the public interest are actually acting in their own interests.” 

This captures the dilemma many professional bodies face – whether the motivation behind a course of action can really be said to be for the greater good – and if so whether this can be demonstrated. 

Professional bodies were originally established to ensure uniformity of expertise. Members acted as gatekeepers and standard setters, capable of ensuring public confidence through the development of frameworks. Within these professional services could be sold and regulated, and recourse could be taken when things went wrong. 

This informal pact between the professions and the public was neatly summarised by a debate in the House of Lords in 1992: 

The modern professions…were established on the basis of an unwritten social contract. By insisting that their members should be properly qualified and by enforcing discipline, the professions said that they would ensure a service to their clients and ultimately to the public which was marked by competence and quality. In return they would be free from day-to-day interference and not obliged to compete in the commercial rat race.”

This ‘service to the public’ is something that needs to be demonstrated to a public who are more than capable of assessing what behaviour passes the smell test.  The long-termreputational dividend of doing so is worth any short-term pain this may cause. 

Another CEO we worked with talked about membership of his organisations being a ‘right to practice’ that had to be earnt – it was not enough to pay an annual subscription, his members needed to be able to show that they operated to a higher ethical standard or they would be prevented from practicing. 

If it is beholden on professional bodies to behave in a way that is commensurate with the public good – and in doing so oversee good behaviour across their memberships what does this look like in practice? 

In our experience those organisations that do this well are clear about the public value their sector of the profession brings, capable of articulating that value in compelling terms and also ensuring that their members then deliver. Accountants are there to underpin economic confidence, journalists to keep the State in check, medics to bring about universal improvement in our quality of life and so forth. 

If as a professional body, you are not speaking to these universal challenges and how you are tackling them the chances are you are sweating the wrong issues. The prize for getting this right is not just public confidence in a renewed social contract, but also a happy membership - both of which are worth the effort.

Here are some questions to help prompt an honest conversation in this area: 

  1. If a member of the public were to read your last annual review would your deeds alone be enough to convince them that we were a force for good in the world? 
  2. In a situation where there was a conflict between the public interest and the needs of yourmembers how would you act? 
  3. Do you train your staff to understand what you mean by the public interest and to behave accordingly? 
  4. Do you have the governance and oversight in place to keep all areas of your operations in check here? 
  5. Are you accountable in situations where you fall short? In what way? 

Being able to demonstrate your commitment to the public good is ultimately what underpins your licence to operate as a professional body. It is worth getting right. 



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