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Asymmetry and professionalism: the case for protection

I recently presented evidence to the Australian Productivity Commission which has been carrying out an inquiry into the regulation of architects. As in the UK, the title of 'architect' is protected, but the function of architecture is not. Daft really, for as I have long argued, protection of title is useless without protection of function as enjoyed by the legal and medical professions in both the UK and Australia.

Anyway, it seems inevitable that the commission will advise its government to abandon protection of title for architects. In short, it considers that protection provides 'virtually no consumer or community benefits'. The commission further concludes that consumer interests would be improved by intensification of competition among architects and, wait for it, between architects and non-architects! So here is the ultimate expression of a deregulated market, supposedly in the interests of the consumer: abandon protection of title and force professional experts to compete against 'allcomers', not only in terms of fees, but also against an apparently formal denial of the value of specialist training and expertise. It is a fascinating, albeit ludicrous, proposition.

One of the commission's major concerns is the notion of asymmetry - in the relationships between client and professional advisor. It argues that in virtually all economic transactions, consumers do not have complete information about the attributes or quality of the goods or services that they are procuring, and that, typically, they have less information than the seller. Accordingly, 'sellers' can persuade consumers to procure goods or services that they do not need, and poorquality work can be passed to ill-informed purchasers. Furthermore, professional organisations allegedly construct conditions for artificially high costs in the supply of services - for example, by setting unnecessarily demanding standards for entry into the profession, thereby limiting the numbers of available consultants and, in consequence, inflating fee levels.

So here is another great idea: downgrade standards in order to increase numbers - so driving down fee levels. It is difficult to see how a better service or standard of architecture can result from this strategy. All of this is to deny the true meaning of the word 'professional'. A (professional) surgeon advises that the patient needs physiotherapy, whereas the trader will offer two hip transplants for the price of one.

The (professional) architect argues and settles the builder's final account at the lower level that is properly due under the contract, rather than certifying the unjustified higher figure claimed by the builder despite the consequent reduction in the professional's fee level.

The profile of the Australian architectural profession is similar to ours, with a high proportion of sole-practitioners and small practices operating against relatively tight margins. As with the UK, in comparison with other professions, the level of formal complaints against architects for malpractice and incompetence is relatively low - witness the dreadful difficulties that British medics now face and the backlog of cases against UK solicitors. And, as here, it is small practices and sole practitioners who shoulder the main responsibility for ensuring the good public reputation of the architectural profession in terms of both competence and conduct, for it is the individual and small clients who turn to the registration board in terms of complaints - larger organisations using larger practices tend to resort to litigation and arbitration and have little interest in the professional complaints procedures.

Bearing in mind the wide and onerous responsibility borne by small practices, and the relatively poor remuneration levels, it is to the credit of sole practitioners that the complaints level in our profession remains so low. But as long as expert professional advice is needed, there will inevitably be an asymmetry in the relationship between the adviser and the client. And that is why the notion of professional must be understood and safeguarded through training, registration and regulation.

Hopefully, it is not too late for the Australians to think again, and look carefully at the case for promoting and protecting the delivery of an independently regulated architectural service.

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