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Nic Cicutti: The PR spin behind the MAS statistics

How do you class what you do as a success – or otherwise? All of us have our own individual metrics.

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How do you class what you do as a success – or otherwise? All of us have our own individual metrics. For some advisers it’s purely to do with how much money they earn, for others it’s about constructing a sublime piece of financial planning for someone in need and seeing it come to fruition.

For the Money Advice Service, perhaps unsurprisingly, the way to measure its own achievements seems to be the number of people it succeeds in helping.

Last week, the MAS released new quarterly figures about its success in assisting people to access its service, as well as “what actions people are choosing to take as a result”. To dignify all this wonderful research further, the MAS has given this self-claimed index of people’s engagement with finance the title of “Quarterly Financial Capability Tracker”.

I’ll come back to this “tracker” and how useful it really is later. But it should first be acknowledged that its launch is a clever – if predictable – move from a PR perspective, because they appeal to journalists’ inherent love of regularly-published “statistics”, no matter how spurious they really are.

Surveys like this are part of any PR manager’s ABC: they allow scribes to create a succession of stories, which then appear the context of whether the figures revealed are going up or down at various time intervals, three-monthly in this instance, rather than the value of the statistics themselves.

A classic example to have entered the national consciousness is the Nationwide and Halifax house price indices. Not only do they tell us something useful about the economy, they also appeal to millions of homeowners’ natural curiosity about the value of their greatest asset.

This also helps explain why, if you are a company or a public body desperately in need of a helpful headline to help cement your place in the public consciousness, one of the first things you reach out for is a “survey”.

Ally it to the word “tracker” and with any luck credulous journalists will be writing about you for years to come. If you don’t believe me, check out the number of similar “surveys” to make an appearance across the press.

The real question, however, is that of what statistics you decide to pump out. In the case of the MAS, it is the claim that as a result of accessing its own service, 184,000 people have taken action to manage their finances in the period between April and June.

For new MAS chief executive Caroline Rookes the figures are proof positive that after several years of suffering from widely-publicised credibility issues,  her organisation is moving in a positive direction.

Rookes claims: “The methodology we have created – in collaboration with behaviour change and research experts – allows us to dig deeper than ever before into this area which is extremely hard to analyse.” The results, she says are “encouraging”.

So how does the MAS arrive at these figures? It says it “worked with” pollsters Ipsos MORI, asking questions of 483 customers across a mixture of web, phone and face-to-face interviews. The precise mixture of each is not revealed, or the scientific basis of how they were chosen.

Nor have we been given any data in terms of different responses depending on the type of interview, each of the five specific categories chosen – protecting assets, providing for your family, saving regularly, preparing for retirement and managing debt – or of the specific questions used, or whether there was any follow-up to them. The latter is a particular impediment in arriving at any serious assessment of their usefulness.

For example, in the context of protecting your assets, the question to respondents was framed as follows: “Did your experience with the MAS influence your decision to take out home contents insurance?” What it did not ask is precisely what action was taken, or how influential the MAS was in the context of any decision taken.

Similarly, when it comes to saving, the MAS asks: “Did your experience with the Money Advice Service influence your decision to start saving?” We are not told what the proportion of people who answered positively to this particular question was, relative to the other categories, or whether they were influenced to save or not to save.

One the saddest features of all this pseudo-science is the fact that within it there may be genuinely useful nuggets of information. After all, the MAS now controls the £30m budget which allows face-to-face and telephone-based debt advice to be delivered.

Indeed, one of the few questions where there is any semblance of genuine response is data suggesting 78 per cent of people who received help from six debt advice delivery partners in England and Wales, including Citizens Advice, said they have started to reduce their debts as a result.

Not that these gaping lacunae in the MAS’s evidence base will trouble it very much. At the end of the day, these “statistics” are only there to provide a particular narrative: it wants us to believe that it is genuinely doing some good and that people are actually being helped by its very existence.

Unfortunately, it smells to me more of an organisation still trying to justify the inflated monthly salaries dropping into its employees’ bank accounts.

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

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Comments

There are 9 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. MAS & CAB are doing a good job, flawed? Yes – which organization isn’t?

    The question you don’t ask is what do these people do without MAS? I’d say the average simple review fee is close to £500. More like £3,000.

    Those wanting simple advice and guidance go where?

    Usual Nic Cicutti attack without any substance or intelligent debate.

  2. Again, another column which will divide opinion…

    I agree with Black Dog in that the MAS provides an outlet for the greater extent of the population that are crying out for some financial guidance but are either intimidated by IFA’s and their fee’s or just do not feel that they require a full advice service.

    There will always be the argument from those that have a wealthy client bank to work with that MAS is just providing a service that add’s no value to their business, but I don’t believe that this was ever really the aim…it is to give those that should be seeking advice an opportunity to do so without the initial costs….the obvious counter to this is why is this then being funded by our fee’s…I see the MAS as government initiative and therefore should be funded as one.

  3. Nic is correct that statistics can be made to tell any story.

    In my opinion the MAS does provide a service for those, as P J Botham states, are either intimidated or put off by their perception of IFA’s. Where i disagree with MAS is in what they claim to be doing. They aren’t giving advice, i have to work very hard to show that i am qualified to give financial advice. Why is MAS allowed to state they give “advice” without jumping through similar hoops?

  4. @Nick – They do give advice, they don’t give regulated advice, recommend a product.

    I would suggest that most advisers have experienced the type of inbound call MAS would get, generic questions and help.

    I doubt many call and ask for fund advice on their £100,000 unit trust or how to access clean share classes.

    MAS is flawed – but it does a job and does give advice. Advisers can only gain from an organization promoting advice in my opinion.

  5. In July this year it was reported their overall budget was £78.3m. At the same time they reported their actual number of contacts. Assuming its website cost say £5m (obscene on it’s own) they delivered 7,000 x say 30 min web chats; 23,000 x say 30 minute phone calls, and lets allow 2 hrs for each of 25,000 claimed face 2 face meetings. That’s 65,000 hours of advice at the average £156 per hour of UK financial advisers that’s £10m plus £5m support and a £5m website WHERE HAS ALL THE MONEY GONE?

  6. @Black Dog – I guess it comes down to your definition of advice. I think it would be more accurate to describe what MAS does as guidance rather than advice. A technicality i know but an important one in our world.

    I agree completely that advisers can only gain from organisations promoting advice but i don’t think we should be forced to fund an organisation that fundamentally doesn’t sit within our remit. Why is it the responsibility of regulated advisers to fund non-regulated advice if they aren’t providing it?

  7. I’m more than happy to support the principle of a centrally funded ‘advice’ and/or information service for those who don’t wish to consult the Adviser community, or for whom and Adviser is not appropriate, but as others have said:

    NOT AT MY EXPENSE!

    Simon Webster’s cost analysis is interesting is it not, but as I’m sure Simon is suggesting, the money has gone on inflated Civil Service style salaries and benefits for a bloated staffing establishment, together with very expensive central London accommodation and expensive ‘surveys’ such as this one to which Nic is drawing attention.

    As with too much of the regulatory landscape, it’s all expensive, muddled, directionless waffle, providing jobs for the boys (and girls), and failing to meet the sensible objectives which we would all support, and for which, without any representation or influence, we have to pay!

  8. Just heard that c £35m of the £78.3 went out direct to fund debt advice (£30m + to CAB) SO on my original point that’s still 65,000 hours of advice worth say £20m costing £43.3m when done by government quango

    What I had not registered until just now is that in addition to funding some very expensive advice we in the profession are now funding the CAB to the tune of £30m and that to me is obscene!

  9. I agree with Simon Webster and Nick Wardke. I am shocked to agree with Nic C! In my opinion MAS is a good idea, but it is a MES a and funded by the wrong people at an obscene cost.
    I was born and bred in Kent, time to risk getting your head chopped off Simon and showing your Kentish stonnorness perhaps? Are the FCa debt collectors for the MAS. Fees area due in August start a campaign of disobedience and ONLY pay FCA and FOS fees, no more FSCS or MAS.

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