When I first came to England from Italy in the late 1960s, the last World War had barely ended a couple of decades earlier. Memories of the conflict were understandably high and permeated people’s humour and the way they saw others of a different nationality.
One joke in particular that I recall was about the Italian tank which had six reverse and one forward gear – and even that was in the event of being attacked from behind.
Witticisms like that are no longer issues on school playgrounds, if only because the average English child has barely any idea of what happened in WW2 and who fought whom.
But the analogy of an “Italian” tank – big, slow, unwieldy, only willing to move when under attack and not because of any independent tactical agility – has always remained with me as a classic way to describe organisations reluctant to admit fault and grindingly slow at changing direction. Which helps explain why there is no better way to describe the Money Advice Service than as an Italian tank.
Last week, MAS chairman Gerard Lemos wrote an article for Money Marketing where, for the first time, the vague sounds of an organisation coming to terms with a tidal wave of criticism could be dimly discerned.
But only very dimly. The criticisms of MAS from the Treasury select sub-committee were alluded to in the opening paragraph, not to mention Moneysavingexpert supremo Martin Lewis, who rightly described its website as “crap”. But even then, this remark was only referred to in the context of how much pleasure it would give Money Marketing’s IFA audience to read such criticisms.
Well, if truth be told, there are undoubtedly some advisers who do enjoy MAS having its nose rubbed in it. The service has consistently advertised itself under the false claim that it offers “free advice” when it does nothing of the sort – and its actual offering has been weak, to say the least.
But the truth is that for every IFA who grimly appreciates seeing MAS being given a “good kicking”, as Conservative MP Mark Garnier described it, there are at least 20 more who do not share the same amusement.
They see an organisation that could perform many vital tasks in terms of educating consumers – and thereby helping them appreciate the value of more targeted financial advice – failing miserably in this aim. They complain about the massive budget, which indirectly they are contributing towards, being wasted.
And they wonder whether this clanking machine, whose bosses – including both Tony Hobman and Gerard Lamos – have spent years in quango-funded roles, even before joining MAS, is ever going to be capable of delivering the kind of service consumers need.
Remember, this is the same Hobman who barely a few months ago was telling us that he needed his £350,000 in order to be incentivised further, who told MPs only in November last year that his earnings would prove to be value for money if MAS successfully made a difference to millions of people. Only it has not, has it?
The sad reality is that, for all of Lamos accepting these criticisms are “serious concerns which require serious responses”, he does not answer any of them in the pages of Money Marketing.
Instead, he asks us to “remind ourselves why we are here” as if the IFA community and consumer organisations were suffering from senile dementia. Look, we know the why, we just do not know whether you are up to the job.
To trot out claims about “100,000 people taking one or more immediate actions” following a visit to the MAS website, when his organisation has been unable to quantify these actions or how they impacted on the lives of those engaged in them, suggests an unwillingness to accept it is doing anything significantly wrong.
To suggest that MAS is a service still in its infancy is also wearing massively thin. Hobman has been in his role for two years while the website has been up and running for a year. In internet terms, that’s an eternity.
What annoys me as much is the fact that, in months and years to come, MAS will claim even further “successes”. Its role as the conduit through which existing organisations whose underpaid and over-worked staff deal with people facing massive debt and money problems must beg for funding, will be deemed a “success”. In other words, the hard work of others at the coalface of financial misery will be turned into an MAS achievement.
We are told that the MAS website is set for a revamp. In future, it will even add template letters for people to send to financial institutions. Moneysavingexpert or Thisis-money could have them up online in days or weeks – without us having to pay millions for the privilege.
Lamos says he is “keen to hear views from Money Marketing’s readers”. It’s guff. After the mauling MAS got from MPs, his PR advice will have been to play meek for now. Before MAS changes in substance rather than image, it will need a lot more “good kickings”.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org