Doing as we are told…

Something happened the other day that set me musing on doing as we are told.

Fundamental changes have crept in to the way we interact in our society over the last years. This has a lot to do with the introduction of ever-increasing regulation and a reluctance on the part of many people to take things at face value. The consequence is that when we deal with strangers – particularly in commercial transactions – there is a tendency for responses that throw up huge potential issues.

The case in point was some instructions I had issued to a company to move a not insignificant amount of money. Instead of just doing as they had been instructed, I was furious to find that 48 hours after the instruction had been acknowledged they still had not done anything. The reason turned out to be a reluctance on the company’s behalf to be certain that what I was doing was in my best interests. They had not thought it appropriate to contact me as a matter of urgency by phone and left it to an email 2 days later that then did not get read until some 5 hours after it had been sent.

In an age of execution-only dealing this was breathtaking in its stupidity. “Who are you” I asked “to decide what is right or wrong for me? Why haven’t you done as you were told?” The response was a muttered “er, well we weren’t sure…” Clear printed instructions are, apparently, not enough these days. The fact that a delay of 48 hours might cause some financial embarrassment (not to say potentially huge loss) had never entered the head of the individual concerned. He was intent on protecting his company from the possibility of being seen as careless in the eyes of the FSA.

This showed a complete loss of focus on the customer (a key principle of a Compleat Biz) and the mesmerising effect of hiding behind a rules framework that, although intended to protect innocent investors, does absolutely nothing to reinforce attitudes of timeliness and accuracy that once were normal.

How often do you come across instances where giving instructions meets with the same hide-bound approach? Answers like “we don’t do that” or “that’s not possible on our system” abound. Getting to someone who has both the intelligence to recognise the stupidity and is also in a position to do something about it can be very difficult indeed. Like the operations director of another investment company who admitted that his systems could not send correspondence direct to a client – even though both the client and his IFA had instructed them to do so. Why? Because whoever designed the system had not allowed for two correspondence addresses – even though the marketplace commonly allows for correspondence to go direct to a client and copies to be sent to an adviser. Yet the rationale behind this restriction was not one of data storage but rather a view that individuals cannot be trusted with their own decisions. Someone else has to be in the loop to make sure that Mr Jones is not making a mess of his own finances.

Now, we are told, even more rules are being introduced in the area of mortgages. Self-certification is to be ruled out (without any real understanding of how that is going to affect the self-employed whom it was aimed at in the first place). More bureaucracy will surround even the simplest of loan applications… and so it goes on.

You might think me cynical on these points but I fail to see the broader sense in all of this. We should be encouraging more personal responsibility not taking it off the shoulders of the individual and putting it on someone else – be they mortgage lender or some other institution. The stakeholder who is being treated badly here (in the name of nanny actually looking after them) is the individual.

We can set different norms in society about savings ratios and so on without insisting that everyone goes through a state-defined series of tests before they are allowed to do anything that has financial consequences beyond the end of the month.

In a recent Public Sector Tender for a relatively insignificant local authority project – the requirements insisted on seeing Tax Certification that the suppliers did not owe anything to HMRC. What that had to do with the Local Authority in question is undefined. They are not the Tax Police. If they want to feel totally secure that they are only dealing with organisations that are beyond reproach on every level – that betrays a complete lack of understanding of the realities of this world. And yet this insinuation of oversight, rechecking and certification is spreading like wildfire.

On the downside, nobody is challenging the costs to society. We appear to have lost our collective intuition about such matters. It has been replaced with the idea that if you follow rules you cannot be reproved. Yet just who is writing the rules?