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Nic Cicutti: New MAS chief must oversee cultural shift

As regular readers of this column will know by now, I first came to this country in the late 1960s. When I first arrived, my spoken and written English were virtually non-existent, although I soon picked up the odd word or two.

Among the many wonderful aspects of the English language I discovered was its constant adaptability and openness to change. New words and phrases are constantly being added from disparate sources, enriching our ability to communicate with and understand each other.

Among those sources is Private Eye. Many will be aware that The Eye has provided many colourful expressions to the English lexicon, including “Ugandan discussions” and “tired and emotional”, as well as “trebles all round”, often used by one who has, purportedly, made money with no effort.

In the past year or two, I can’t think of any organisation in the financial services industry that has justified the latter phrase more than the Money Advice Service. The organisation itself is a shambles, spending a vast proportion of its £46m budget on marketing itself to an uncaring and unenthusiastic public.

Several of its key figures, including outgoing chief executive Tony Hobman and current chairman Gerard Lemos, appear to earn large chunks of their salaries directly or indirectly by providing services, as individuals or corporately, within that grey and overlapping hinterland of public sector and charitable groups. There is no sense of any connection with financially hard-up families.

Hobman was eventually forced to resign from his £350,000 job in July after being sharply criticised by MPs on the Treasury select committee, not to mention having his service’s website described as “crap” by Moneysavingexpert founder Martin Lewis.

Yet despite announcing his departure months ago, he remains in his MAS bunker until the end of the year, still drawing his grotesque salary in one of the most vivid examples of a dead man walking.

Lemos, meanwhile, has managed to dodge – for now – any collateral damage from the bullets fired at Hobman. He is paid £75,000 for the two days a week he is contracted to work.

He exemplifies his organisation’s unwillingness to accept criticism by his ridiculous defence of the MAS. Lemos’ last article in Money Marketing was a disgrace, implying that Citizens Advice owed its ability to offer debt advice to MAS funding. In doing so, he confirmed precisely my own prediction a few weeks earlier, to the effect that “the hard work of others at the coalface of financial misery will be turned into an MAS achievement.”

He then snidely attacked MSE for making money from commissions on financial product sales, as if that somehow made any difference to the fact that Lewis’ website is vastly more popular with consumers than MAS will ever be.

Lemos’ fantasy claim about having “reached 1.3 million people” back then, and 1.7 million in the six months to September, is meaningless. His organisation’s own press releases, while unveiling North Korean-style approval ratings from grateful users of the website, are unable to pinpoint how the information provided has made any difference whatsoever to the consumers who accessed it.

The only vaguely positive aspect of this charade is that last week the MAS appointed Caroline Rookes as its new chief executive. Normally, I’m suspicious of appointees who have never spent a minute of their life outside the public sector – and Rookes has only held a range of government jobs since leaving university in the late 1970s.

But compared to the vapourings of Hobman, who told MPs last year that his salary would be justified by his organisation’s future success at reaching millions of consumers – it wasn’t – Rookes has the potential to offer a no-nonsense approach to the way the MAS works in future.

So what should she do when she eventually takes over in January? As a first step, she should fire Lemos, whose words in the pages of Money Marketing over recent months have been especially shameful, insulting the intelligence of those he was meant to be communicating with.

Second, Rookes should admit publicly that the MAS is not the successful organisation it claims to be. She should set genuine targets for the MAS and find ways of measuring them in a way that is both tangible and credible.

If you are claiming that your website has “helped decide action” for 69 per cent of respondents, we want to know how it helped, what action was decided on, what the consequence of that action was. Similarly, for 88 per cent to say they will revisit the site, cuts no ice. A promise is no more than that and to offer as a key metric is nonsense.

Finally, stop telling us about the “hundreds” of new articles up on the MAS website. It doesn’t matter how much content you load up if it’s anodyne and boring. A press release about a £29bn Christmas spend doesn’t mark you out from the crowd and neither does an appeal to join a “Savvy Christmas Campaign”.

Hard-pressed consumers want something lively and interactive, challenging and, yes, controversial. Having been given £46m to provide it – several times more than the budget of other, far more successful websites, the MAS owes it to them to bring to an immediate end its “trebles all round” culture.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 10 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Spot on. It really is time this waste of our money was closed down. Really a £75,000 salary for two days per week? Even the FSA thinks that this organisation should not be funded by the financial services sector. It will though drag on for a number of years draining further money from hard pressed IFAs

  2. MAS is like almost every other government-sponsored quango: costly, inefficient, arrogant and not-fit-for-purpose. Unfortunately, us little people pay our taxes, live by the rules and, as a result, get shit on by government and their jobsworths who live a life of luxury at our expense.
    Our only recourse is to use the vote we have wisely – we don’t live in a democracy or anything like a democracy but we do have the power to oust those politicians who think that they have the right to a meal ticket for llife. But it is no use voting for more of the same – voting red, blue or yellow (or even green or UKIP) is voting for more of the same. Every MP should be an Independent with no allegiance to any party-fed doctrine. MPs should be able to follow their own convictions and represent their own constituents without fear that their own career might suffer if they upset a jumped up twit like Cameron or Miliband. Vote for an independent and make a real difference to the future of British politics.

  3. @ Anon 11.33
    So you believe anarchy is preferable to order do you?
    May I suggest you have not thought this through, or are you just another ‘jumped up twit’?

  4. They’re such an easy target aren’t they?

    Whenever the government, or their appointed representatives, start to meddle in areas where private enterprise has already stolen a substantial lead you just know there will be tears in the end.

    When perfectly decent mechanisms for dealing with consumer debt are crying out for resources one wonders how much the £46m would have helped the CAB service for example.

    As to the Mickey Mouse metrics? They’re entirely prectictable I’m afraid. Expect many more esoteric variations on them over the next few months.

    On a final point Nic I’m slightly puzzled by your robust defence of the commission model operated by MSE based purely on the ‘popularity’ of the business as you see it.

    I’ve no axe to grind against Martyn and Co, far from it and good luck to them but I find your apparent approval of commission in this arena puzzling given your oft repeated views on this ‘scourge’.

    Change of heart perhaps Nic or just a bit confused.com?

  5. Kind words about two of my favourite institutions-Private Eye (a subscriber for nearly fifty years) and Martin Lewis’s website. But a bit unkind about the MAS, no mention of the many benefits this institution provides.

    To redress the balance here is a list of the plus points of the MAS…
    (cont P 94)

  6. Nicholas Pleasure 29th November 2012 at 4:39 pm

    @Hickky | 29 Nov 2012 1:11 pm

    I’m interested that you regard the current omnishambles as order!

  7. I agree with much of what you write except your welcome of the appointment of a new CEO.

    All I want to see is the appointment of an administrator to wind up this sorry unnecessary bumbling expensive mess.

  8. Hmm..

    Whilst I agree with absolutely everyone you are saying here, I have also read most of your weekly opinion pieces and have to draw attention to one of your comments today, namely;

    “insulting the intelligence of those he was meant to be communicating with”

    Never has the term pot, kettle, black sprung to my mind so easily…

  9. @ Lee Rawding: I think it’s you who are confused.com. My comment referred specifically to the implication by Lemos that there might be any connection between MSE’s popularity and its sources of income.

  10. @ Nic: Presumably your contention is that the business model has nothing to do with MSE’s popularity?

    I read it as one of your criticisms of MAS and tacit approval for the, much more popular, MSE otherwise what was the point of cutting and pasting it?

    One of the above is funded by an industry levy and the other by good old fashioned commission. I think it’s fair of me to point out the apparent anomaly in your stance given your previous writings.

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