Crimes against information 

I spend a very great deal of my life reviewing how other people use information.  Clearly, much of my focus is on how IFAs arrive at the basis for their advice - sometimes, one can see the clear forensic links in the file, where it is evident that the adviser has gone through a careful process of incorporating a range of information-types into his or her model, and has gone to great lengths to counterbalance various factors which have competing demands.  Sometimes, one encounters a pile of data, and it is almost impossible to determine how the adviser has arrived at their final decision.  And sometimes, it is clear that there have been a set of questionable presuppositions driving the whole thing - the information placed on file was mere window-dressing.  Where outcomes are important, what we do with the information that is available to us is absolutely critical.

And it's not just advisers.  I spent a weekend recently reviewing a particular Court Judgement which interested me.  It ran to 39 pages, and included a huge number of legal precedents which were used to bolster the final judgement.  It was clear, from the word go, exactly where this was going to end up.  The citations were carefully selected to add weight to the conclusion, but any of those citations, individually, was open to question.  It was not that difficult to see a judgement which owed its existence to the presuppositions behind the case, rather than to the 'evidence' (such as it was) itself.  Sometimes, we kid ourselves with the myth of objectivity because that seems to validate our actions.

Rather more recently, the challenging exercise of wading through an FCA decision regarding the status of an adviser reminded me of this same theme.  Citations from the regulations are used as a blunt instrument for driving a conclusion, even when it is questionable whether they are even relevant in the context.  A string of observations about the candidate are interpreted ruthlessly from an a priori standpoint which now, apparently, forms a permanent and unquestioned component within FCA culture.  As one works one's way through this kind of self-contradictory decision, it becomes swiftly evident that there is little point to having information, if one does not know what to do with it.  And it dawns on one that this lax and undisciplined approach to handling information, is directly spawned by the kind of lack of accountability which doesn't really care about the consequences.

It seems odd that, in an age when the availability of information is greater than at any other point in human history, we seem to have largely lost the tools to equip us to make sense of it.  It is in such a culture that 'the Law' is reduced to ambulance-chasing and conveniently-selective citations, whilst concepts such as 'fairness' and 'justice' lie in the shadows.  

Of course, presuppositions are an inevitability.  None of us emerge into the world with a kind of untainted first-flush of native objectivity.  How we go about doing what we do will always, to some extent, be coloured by what we believe about a thing, or the nature of our past experience.  And, clearly, there is a very significant difference between having access to a great deal of information, and actually knowing what we can do with the data that will actually generate meaningful outcomes.  The error is to mistake the two things - and I have, over many years, read too many client files where it was apparent that the adviser had confused quantity with interpretation and diagnosis.  What kinds of principle help us through this particular minefield?

  • cultivate a self-awareness of your own subjectivity, and therefore an honesty about the possibility of getting things wrong
  • question your results - test potential outcomes as much as possible (in this respect, ValidPath Members' access to CashCalc is a real support)
  • list all the facts - and have them there, in front of you, whilst you work (good factfinding and the use of Clarity's functionality is essential)
  • care enough - about the truth of your recommendations, and about the most likely outcomes (and pitfalls) for the client
  • be sufficiently self-critical to consider how your client-file could be used against you at a later date, by someone who not be inhibited by scruples

Of course, when we misuse information, the information itself really doesn't care one way or the other.  When it is information concerning people, their circumstances, priorities and aspirations, then the real crime is more serious.

Kevin Moss, 04/06/2015