Caron Bradshaw: Let's unpack what is meant by the 'public interest'

This month the CEO of our regulator spoke at the ICAEW’s charity conference. Rather than rely on the headlines, which caused my heart to sink a little, I went to the speech itself. I’m glad I did because I agree with much more of what Helen had to say than I disagreed with.

It was heartening to read her focus on the efforts and critical value of the sector to society – particularly in these times. But, there is one area I feel I must highlight and offer a different view – acting in ‘the public interest’.

I spent 16 years at ICAEW. I worked both within the technical directorate and spent a lot of time responsible for the ethics advisory team, which meant I looked at a range of areas, including what it means to ‘act in the public interest’. I frequently had to explain and interpret law, guidance and new regulations as they apply to accountants to ensure that the interests of the public, and not the profession, remained at heart. It was whilst I was there that the technical directorate published its excellent work Acting in the public interest, which has been subsequently updated and republished and which I believe provides a brilliant framework for the topic.

In her speech, Helen said that "some in the sector may have hoped the Commission’s explicit, and vocal focus on serving the public interest was just a passing fashion. Far from it”. I have not come across anyone in the sector who had hoped that the regulator would stop focussing on public interest. I have, however, come across many – myself included – who question whether the Commission’s focus on trust and public opinion equates to acting in the public interest. Using phrases and words interchangeably in speeches doesn’t necessarily follow that they are interchangeable in meaning.

My fear, as with many others, has been that far from focussing on what is in the public’s interest, the commission has overly focussed on what the public is interested in and the rather thin and moveable concept of ‘public expectation’.
So, let’s unpack what is meant by acting in the ‘public interest’. Language is important. Public curiosity, fascination, want or expectation are not the same as public interest. This specific term transcends popularist appetites or passing fashions. It is about the good of society, the welfare or wellbeing of the general public.

It’s not a numbers game. It matters not if the majority of the public want to know something or want a particular outcome. This volume of opinion or desire does not render the action or information as in the ‘public interest’. Nor is it dictated by media intrigue in contentious topics. The degree to which a matter is thought ‘interesting’ is not indicative of something being a public interest matter.

Uncomfortable though it may be for a regulator, public interest also includes the opinions of its regulated population, who are impacted by decisions taken under the banner. In other words, in the context of charity regulation public interest should take into account the opinion of charities.

ICAEW’s aforementioned thought leadership piece warns that “the relevant public’s wants may be incompatible with a public interest outcome for a number of reasons.” And warns that “what the public think they want” and be “distorted by incomplete or wrong information” and may need to be adjusted.

The piece argues those seeking to advocate an action as being in the public interest need to balance a range of areas and “…need to weight opinions for the degree to which people actually have, or should have, an interest in the issue".

Having made these considerations, they will need to demonstrate that they have done this objectively, competently and proportionately.” This is what has exercised many in the sector when speeches given by the chair and executive have taken the line that it’s the commissions job to ensure that charities meet the public’s expectations.

So, when we challenge what it means to focus on public benefit and ‘acting in the public interest’ and we reject that the ever changing ‘expectations’ of the public is synonymous with it, we are not advocating that the commission abandons the concept. Quite the opposite.

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