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 firstname.lastname@example.org