Chris Swinson: it's a matter of opinion

Whatever we do or say as professionals is interpreted by our audience against a background of perceptions
Chris Swinson

How often have you grumbled about opinion polls? They seem to be everywhere. There seem to be polls on almost everything. But does anyone ever ask you for your views? How can poll results be reliable if they do not take account of the people I know who never seem to be asked?

This only comes to mind because I have just been asked. Walking along a street I was approached by a person asking questions for a poll. Of course, I tried to avoid it. There were other things to do. I did not want to be troubled. But I was caught.

I am not at all sure that the researcher really got what she needed. I was short of time, and grumbling as a result. My mind was on the meeting I had been in and the meeting I was going to. I answered the questions, but with scant thought and, I am afraid, considerable reluctance.

Of such are poll results made, I presume. It is of course entirely possible that there are paragons who patrol the streets with informed views on everything under the sun, just waiting to be interviewed - but I rather suspect not. It is all too likely that polls reflect our half-considered, ill thought-through, grumbling views.

Hidden subtleties

And the result . . ? Well, I would say that the resulting views are bound to be fickle and uncertain. How could they be otherwise if people have not thought through their views? They are likely to reflect a large measure of self-interest, for that is what most readily comes to mind as a first thought. They may be prone to cynicism, particularly where an issue is too complicated for an immediate response. In short, they may not be a good foundation for action.

I know,. I know This is all prejudice. But if it is worth a researcher asking for my views on whether Mr Blair and Mr Brown are 'doing a good job', and whether the Labour government is 'managing the economy well', then my views on opinion polls themselves must also have some value.

The truth is that I distrust the whole process, at least as a way of deciding what should be done.

Most issues are more complicated than one ever dreams. There are always subtleties that are not evident on the surface. Most people do not want to spend their time thinking through all the issues on which they might be expected to have views. The result is that whenever they are asked for their views, people are likely to respond with their instinctive self-interest. That is the view that takes the least time and least effort to express.

This seems to me dangerous. I realise that polls are not always designed to decide matters. They are often, perhaps almost always, intended merely to record the vagaries of public opinion so that politicians and others can chart a course around them. But the result can too easily be a loss of respect for the people and a belief that altruistic principle cannot be sustained. Over-reliance on polling enhances the importance of impressions over substance. In time this can lead to government that is morally weak because it chooses its policies and designs its actions more by reference to short-term perceptions than to fundamental belief or principle.

It almost makes one yearn for a philosopher-king who could rule by his own principle. Theoretically at least, such a person could ignore short-term pressures and hold to longer-term objectives. In the words of William Tyndale, 'better a tyrant than a shadow'.

What, you might ask, has all of this got to do with the profession of accountancy?

None of us are unaffected by public perceptions, whatever we may think. Our clients bring them into our offices, whenever they visit. Whatever we do or say as professionals is interpreted by our audience against a background of perceptions. As likely as not, those perceptions are going to be somewhat sceptical and perhaps cynical about our claims to occupy the moral high ground of principle. Cynicism will certainly be the response to claims that all the members of a particular profession adhere to the highest principles just because they have gone through their professional training.

Trade or tradition

Professionals have a choice about how they should behave in this environment. On the one hand, they can attempt to uphold the traditional ideas of a profession in which the basic principles are upheld. On the other hand, they can regard principles as merely commodities that can be traded.

Both options are difficult. Neither is comfortable. But a profession that trades in everything will lose respect.

Chris Swinson is a senior partner at BDO Stoy Hayward and a past president of the ICAEW. If you wish to debate with Chris, you can reach him at
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