After the governance row, a narrow corporate focus on probity rather than genuine ethics would be a mistake, says Stephen Hill

“Would you generally trust this profession to tell you the truth?” That is the question in Ipsos Mori’s Annual Veracity Index for 30 selected professions. The 2020 Index, published last November, just before the RICS story broke, has engineers scoring an enviable 89%, only a few points behind the regular leaders in this survey, nurses and doctors. Estate agents, which includes some surveyors, scored less well on 27%, but at least better than government ministers’ 16%. But the surveying profession itself does not feature; not very encouraging public recognition of the profession of the land, on which every aspect of human life is played out. Little gratitude to the profession that has been maintaining and promoting its “usefulness…for the public advantage” since 1868.

You can get a TrustPilot rating for surveying firms, but not for their professional body with its more significant public interest obligations. Over a professional lifetime, I would have to say that neither the RICS, nor any built environment professional body has shown much sustained curiosity about what the public make of them, let alone acknowledge any responsibility to account for the things they do, or possibly don’t do, to meet their charter public interest obligations. In the 21st century, can that be right?

> Also read: Leading property experts call for radical overhaul of RICS after review chair steps down

If the public do not feel connected to what surveyors do to shape their lives, the comments published by Building in recent weeks have shown how many RICS members also feel detached from the professional life of their institution. So a big trust deficit both inside and outwith the profession.

Never waste a good crisis

Steph Hill

Surveyors are good at valuing and estimating the cost of things, even something as intangible as goodwill. We now have quite sophisticated ways of measuring natural and social value. But what about valuing trust, and more particularly understanding the cost of rebuilding the trust damaged by recent events? Despite negative reactions, the need for RICS to succeed is recognised by many. However, it will have to go much further to restore trust than just reacting to the particular audit-related issues, or the limited framing of its future direction review.

The RICS should open itself to a new form of institutional accountability for its public interest responsibilities

The RICS needs a new outgoing relationship with the public in relation to its charter obligations and the fundamental task of surveyors (since 1881) of “securing the optimal use of land and its associated resources to meet social and economic needs”: yes, ”social and”. It needs to reassert its public leadership role in meeting the challenges of the day, many focused on the ways that land use can both create and moderate these challenges. The climate crisis, water/food/energy/biodiversity insecurities, inequities in land and housing markets are global challenges. The risks of deregulation in construction, the financialisation of residential leases, avoidable shortfalls in the supply of affordable housing, the quality leasehold and rental management all have a local focus.

> Also read: Industry veterans query RICS appointing own bosses to lead review of group

There global and local scales are interconnected, so just being a UK-focussed profession is not a credible or intelligent professional position. However, all intelligence and knowledge starts locally. The sources of that knowledge, created by members’ experiences everywhere must be valued and nurtured in ways that have been neglected. The responsibility for RICS’ professional action and thought leadership is to ensure that local knowledge is then deployed to global effect.

What should be done?

The RICS should open itself to a new form of institutional accountability for its public interest responsibilities, social purpose and sustainable development objectives, by establishing an independent Public Interest Sounding Board, co-created with civil society interests[i], to work alongside the institution.

The sounding board is a shorthand term to describe a significantly changed organisational culture in the governance of the institution, and a diversity of approaches to institutional and member accountability. It would connect the institution to a richer experience of public life beyond government, business and members’ clients. It would provide feedback to the institution on matters of public interest in which the profession has a material role for good or bad outcomes.

The profession needs to have a safe space in which the public and members can explore and understand more fully the ethical and equitable content of surveyors’ work

All the challenges listed above have a significant ethical dimension, so the sounding board would also examine ethical issues through thought leadership and non-regulatory processes. The profession needs to have a safe space in which the public and members can explore and understand more fully the ethical and equitable content of surveyors’ work. RICS’ narrow corporate focus on probity rather than genuine ethics is limiting its potential to contribute to all the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, not just those concerned with business ethics.

A group of RICS members have put the sounding board proposal to RICS’ review team. The events that have led to the review feel like a warning to all professional institutions that the inward-looking self-regulating mindset of the last 150 years is not fit-for-purpose today. We believe that all professions, and particularly ours, will only flourish in the future if we can work with the public, both to account for our public interest purposes, and to set a shared agenda of how we will have to live in a more sustainable and equitable world, and how land is used for that purpose.

Stephen Hill is a public interest practitioner, and the first UK winner of the RICS’ Lifetime Achievement Award, in November last year. The views in this article are his own.

[i] The Public Interest Sounding Board proposal is the second of three recommendations arising from Stephen Hill’s Churchill Fellowship research programme in 2014/15 on land, land professions and the public interest (and 2 page summary findings), and his participation as an independent expert to the RIBA’s Ethics and Sustainable Development Commissions in 2018/19.