There certainly have been too many examples in recent times that illustrate that some people’s desire for profits, above all else, leads to unacceptable and immoral behaviour. Most people say that things have to change and I am definitely one of them.
MPs fiddling expenses, banks mis-selling products, newspapers illegally prying into people’s private lives… the list goes on. The consequences of a purely profit driven agenda, disconnected from the impact on people, are clear and for most of us are unacceptable.
If you wanted proof about how much has changed, just read Elisabeth Murdoch’s speech last month at the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture and you’ll see that profit for profit’s sake alone seems to be no longer as socially acceptable as it once was; certainly not as acceptable as her brother suggested when he did the same lecture in 2009.
So why then, I ask myself, when housing associations have hardly been in the spotlight of illegal or systematic moral decline, was Grant Shapps fixated on getting us to publish every bit of our spend over £500?
How would publishing a list of transactions counter growing public concern about big business and, I imagine from a government’s perspective, demonstrate that grants and other investments they were making were truly well spent?
This is made all the more baffling because the constant calls have been made within an environment of reduced regulation, the introduction of co-regulation and localism. It’s also the case that these calls have not been made of the banks that taxpayers have bailed, nor the commercial house builders who also receive grants for new affordable housing.
This is an intriguing situation, made all the more so by the fact that both traditional and social media repeat the call with a growing list of housing associations pledging to publish this data, sometimes with even lower publishing thresholds. Clearly transparency and accountability is important. For me though, I feel these are too important to be dealt with in such a simplistic way.
Housing associations have had needless attention placed upon them regarding this issue from the former Housing Minister and I think that’s a real shame. We should have grabbed his interest in other ways because we can really help house building and the economic recovery. His attention missed the basic point about our strategic role, a role I intend to return to on another day. If housing associations have been singled out because of a perceived lack of accountability, then this should be said and then we could have responded accordingly.
The strange thing is that affordable housing is already very open and accountable and well ahead of many other sectors. If anyone needs convincing, they should just read the great summary produced by the National Housing Federation on transparency in the sector.
My view is that all businesses – whether not-for-profit or commercial – need to take this matter seriously and come to a view about how important transparency is to them and how to discharge their corporate transparency agenda. This is a decision for the board to make, since it's part of the ethics of the business. It can’t be imposed and owned.
All ethical businesses need to be accountable to wider society. It’s not simply housing associations, nor other organisations that directly or indirectly receive Government funding, that need to respond to this agenda.
Once a board’s clear about what is essentially an ethical stance, then it can confidently publish appropriate and meaningful information, aligning what it does to its wider strategy and purpose. In this, there may well be space for a list of £500 transactions, but there may well not be. This is because publishing data is not the same as publishing information. Publishing information which underscores an organisation’s ethics and values is enlightened transparency, allows the audience to become informed about relevant things and, in turn, helps build confidence.
Whilst there is more we can do as a sector, I feel sure that publishing spend over £500, as we have had to do in order to comply with the new capital funding agreement, is nothing like true accountability nor is it useful information (and I say this even though we’ve done it too).
Discovering what the right level of transparency is, is a journey which we at Curo are embarking on and are taking very seriously as part of our cultural change programme.
Having clarity about the level of corporate openness we are willing to embrace will allow us to solidify our ethical position in the market and will also assist us to chart a course over time, directly connected to our purpose and value set.
My hope is that the with a new Housing Minister, we will have a more meaningful discussion about the underlying drivers of transparency and that our sector is allowed to be more creative about how to respond to these and the wider need of restoring public confidence in business ethics.