What is our individual duty to the public interest?

As members of ICAEW, we are members of a profession that takes its duty to serve the public interest seriously, as is mentioned in the opening sections of the ICAEW and international codes of ethics. But fine though that is, and must be to preserve our long term reputation, it leads to some big questions. What is ‘the public interest’? And what does the requirement for us all to act in the public interest mean as we go about our day to day jobs?

As we pointed out in an important piece of thought leadership a few years ago, defining ‘the public interest’ is rather difficult. There are a lot of publics with different perspectives, wants and needs. A lot of the time, people use the term without really knowing what it means. They could also be using it as something of a smokescreen to disguise advocating something that suits their own interests.

But it’s the second question that I want to draw your attention to. Does the duty of the profession as a whole to serve the public interest mean that members of ICAEW have to make some sort of assessment as to what the public interest is, in every engagement or activity?

This question was considered at length, by two different tribunals, in the Financial Reporting Council’s MG Rover disciplinary case. Following on from that, and an extensive consultation process, ICAEW has released guidance clarifying members’ individual public interest duty.

In short, the answer to the question is no. Members do not have to make a separate public interest assessment as to whether a likely engagement or assignment would result in a public interest benefit. What we all do have to do is recognise that the need to be ethical is what professionalism is all about, and follow the code of ethics in spirit as well as letter. That is our public interest duty, that is what will preserve and enhance all our reputations, and that is what makes chartered accountants special.

Do read the guidance, which also goes into a number of other points arising from the MG Rover case, including the need to guard against conflicts arising within what might appear to be one client.