Finance: Accountants ready to put their house in order

The Institute of Chartered Accountants' president and his senior colleagues are determined to leave their mark with a more clearly focused organisation, says Roger Trapp.
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The departure of the former civil servant and public relations consultant was a direct response to the publication of the Gerrard report. Many will have regarded this review of the workings of this venerable professional body as overdue, but still doubted whether anything definite will have resulted from the findings of the prominent barrister Peter Gerrard QC.

The ending of Mr Colquhoun's reign was a direct result of Mr Gerrard's recommendation that the chief executive of the organisation should be an accountant. But it is clear that the management's plans do not end there.

Chris Laine, the current president, has clearly not talked to previous holders of the post, one of whom once remarked that it did not take him long to realise that about the only power he had was to choose the menus for the many dinners he attended in the course of his year of office.

Of course, the traditional advantage that the chief executive and the secretariat have had over the elected office holders is that they are there permanently, while the president only has a year in which to carry out any plans and must - in theory - keep up their day job at the same time.

Mr Laine has chosen to see it differently - taking care to ensure that Chris Swinson and Dame Sheila Masters, the next and next-but-one presidents, were signed up to the reform programme, too. "We had long discussions before we took office as a trio," he says. In this way, as he points out, there are effectively three years in which to bring the plans to fruition. Consequently, when he passes on the torch next summer, he is confident that his successors will largely stick to the path.

But he notes that one of Gerrard's criticisms was that a year was too short a period for a president to serve effectively. While he acknowledges there are practical difficulties with an individual doing more, he feels the issue ought to be examined.

Though the reorganisation has already claimed one scalp, Mr Laine is anxious to allay fears of an approaching blood bath. For a start, Mr Colquhoun will be replaced - although it is reckoned that finding the right person will take some time. And, while the institute's staff has grown to about 500 people split between London and Milton Keynes, he does not envisage large-scale lay-offs.

"I would be surprised if there were fewer jobs," he says, stressing that the changes he envisages have more to do with getting people to work "more coherently" and in a more structured way than reducing the headcount. Pointing out that the institute's numerous functions have grown up in reponse to "various challenges", he says there is a need for some reorganisation. Indeed, this has already started, with regulation, for instance, separated into a professional standards office.

As Mr Laine accepts, regulation has become a particular problem area for the body since it agreed to take on the Government's supervisory functions under the self-regulatory regime set up in the 1980s.

He is one of the institute members most aware of the problem of reconciling the - to many outsiders - conflicting roles of trade association and regulator. But he believes that the "review board" concept devised by Mr Swinson's working party is something that, together with revisions to the Joint Disciplinary Scheme, "ought to work" when it is introduced next year. "If it doesn't work to political requirements, then I think we will have done all that we possibly can," he adds.

Greater recognition is also being given to education and training's central role. But it is clear that Mr Laine and his colleagues are paying particular attention to delivering a better standard of service to their members. Members have until 19 December to comment on the institute council's proposals for dealing with this - basically, maintaining a high reputation for members, serving members, representing them and being fully accountable to them.

As part of this, the council is proposing that there be a new emphasis on members' specific interests, through district societies, faculties and boards, and changes to the rules to allow members to be elected to the council by faculties and boards as well as district societies. But Mr Laine is insistent that - at a time when members expect higher standards of service - the changes need to go further.

Having noted that the institute has, like many other bureaucracies, found it "too easy to shove things about while you lose them", he says:

"We need to find ways of getting closer to members. We realise that we need to do more than merely change our institute's constitution. We also need to change the way in which we go about our business, how we reach decisions and how we relate to members."