Rigorous ethics and professional standards are vital to restoring public trust
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Rigorous ethics and professional standards are vital to restoring public trust

17 days ago · 3 min read

By Sue Coffey, CEO of Public Accounting at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and Michael Armstrong, CEO of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)

The American people’s confidence in key public and private institutions have never before been at such a low ebb, according to a public opinion survey from Gallup. Average confidence across all institutions stands at just 27%—the lowest since Gallup began asking the question in 1973.

This sentiment is top of mind for the professions and regulatory boards represented by the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing (ARPL).

“The confidence crisis extends beyond political institutions at a time when a near record-low 13% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.,” Gallup notes. “Confidence in institutions is unlikely to improve until the economy gets better—but it is unclear if confidence will ever get back to the levels Gallup measured in decades past, even with an improved economy.”

This crisis of confidence in institutions is of great concern to ARPL members as both citizens and representatives of the professionals entrusted with the public’s physical and financial health, safety, and welfare.

There is an old saying that “not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

It is in that spirit that the architects, CPAs, engineers, landscape architects, and surveyors represented by ARPL pride ourselves on established uniform standards for education, examination, and experience. We call them “The 3 E's”—Education, Examination and Experience, as they form the backbone of our professional licensing systems. However, there is also a fourth “E” that lives in licensing systems—Ethics.

From the CPAs who audit state pension funds to the architects who design public structures, our work impacts the public at large. The public must be able to trust the integrity of our work and the people who perform it. This is our professions’ social contract with the public and it is underpinned by ethics. To understand this contract—not in theory but in practice—one must understand the role responsible licensing systems play in creating and enforcing ethical standards.

Architect licensure candidates must demonstrate an understanding and adherence to professional ethics during their exam and experience components. To earn a CPA license, many states require candidates to pass an additional ethics exam. Once licensed, both CPAs and architects must comply with a code of ethics, which helps to ensure that licensed professionals who are entrusted to protect the public act with integrity and objectivity. Those who violate the code are investigated and are subject to fines or removal from the profession.

Licensing might not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of ethics, but it is one of the most valuable and underappreciated tools we have to ensure ethical standards are maintained in the fields of societal endeavor we represent.

The public intuitively understands the value of licensure in promoting critical standards, including ethical conduct, that protect consumers. This is why a nationwide survey found that 67% of voters believe consumers are best protected by a system that regulates education, examination, and experience standards. Licensing boards are responsible for establishing and overseeing these standards among professions, including enforcement of ethical conduct.

Elevating ethics as an expectation of a profession is an oft overlooked but critical role of rigorous licensing. It is yet another reason lawmakers should be wary of broad-brush “reform” bills that weaken or eliminate licensure and diminish the role of licensing boards that the public recognizes.

Ethics is integral to the assurance that businesses, governments, and individuals need when they hire professionals. The most effective way to provide that assurance is professional codes of ethical conduct that are consistently and fairly enforced.

We urge policymakers and the public to recognize that to support strong licensure is to support strong ethics in our society.

Sue Coffey is CEO of Public Accounting at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). Michael Armstrong is CEO of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Both NCARB and AICPA are founding members of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing (ARPL).

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