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Profile: TPAS chief Michelle Cracknell on making guidance a social norm

Michelle Cracknell is in very select company. She must be one of only a handful of pensions professionals who are thankful the Government unleashed the freedom and choice reforms 18 months ago.

“I got really lucky in March 2014 when George Osborne got up and thrust pensions right into the spotlight,” says The Pensions Advisory Service chief executive. “I’ve had the opportunity of looking after this organisation at a time when more people are talking about pensions than ever before.”

Cracknell is not underestimating the sudden increase in attention that TPAS has attracted since it was chosen, along with Citizens Advice, to deliver Pension Wise, the Government-backed guidance service.

The Government has been criticised for low take-up of the service. According to FCA figures, more than 200,000 have accessed their pensions since the freedoms took effect, but only 20,000 exercised their right to an appointment with Pension Wise.

However, Cracknell says TPAS, which delivers the 45-minute guidance sessions via telephone appointments, has not been running under capacity. TPAS has always been the more favoured of the Pension Wise delivery organisations. For one, it has a long track record. The organisation has been running a helpline providing information on all types of pensions for many years. It also imposed a minimum requirement of five years’ industry experience, while Citizens Advice deemed pension experience non-essential.

Despite the high bar, Cracknell says her new recruits have exceeded the requirements “by a long shot”.

“It’s been very humbling seeing how many people have put their hands up to join us. The amount of vocation we have is fantastic; I don’t have two different types of staff.”

Advisers, pension lawyers, actuaries and even a former head of defined contribution at a major retail bank have joined the ranks of TPAS, typically looking for a “swansong” as they begin to wind down working.

If Cracknell feels she has been thrown in at the deep end, she can take comfort in the fact that she has been there before. She studied to be a civil engineer and had an eye on joining her parents in the US, where her father, an RAF pilot, was stationed. But because her father’s term would be cut short if she moved to the US, she came back to the UK.

It was the 1980s, financial services were booming and everyone wanted to work in the City. She completed the graduate training programme at Friends Provident but wanted to work directly with consumers. She most admired a firm that specialised in setting up small self-administered schemes called Advisory and Brokerage – which would eventually become part of Origen – and applied directly. After qualifying as an actuary she helped build up the defined benefit side of the business.

Rumours that the Government was planning to make escalating pensions in retirement compulsory were circulating and small employ-ers began looking for alternatives to expensive final salary schemes.

“It was a baptism of fire. I was standing up in canteens telling staff ‘you are not going to like what I am about to say because we’re closing down your final salary scheme’. The lesson I learned was to be really upfront with people.”

It was on these trips that Cracknell learned the importance of getting outside the “financial services bubble” and communicating with ordinary savers.

“I remember going to County Durham to a company that made widgets and window latches. I went in there and stood up at 3am, because they ran night shifts, to tell them we were going to close down the scheme. There’s the emotion of not caring until you realise you are about to lose something. Every member of staff had an opportunity to speak one-to-one about the changes, but we hadn’t spoken to any women. You realise you sit in the financial services bubble. I’d sold the idea of a one-to-one for every member but we didn’t think from the staff’s perspective.

“It turned out the women were more comfortable coming to talk to us in groups. That was a lesson learnt: don’t make those kind of judgments.”

While Cracknell is a fan of Osborne’s freedoms, she warns: “You can’t just open up the box of chocolates and tell people they can have as many as they would like.

“Osborne’s achievement was that he said something that made people think their pension could actually mean something to them. The real win has been people have made very considered decisions and our objective at TPAS is to make more people think about pensions.

“It is really important for the Government and industry to commit to support and encourage people to get engaged. If they do that, most people will make good decisions. But we have to do the two in parallel.

“We’ve got two interventions at the moment. You’re signposted to Pension Wise and reminded at the point you take benefits of all the things you should think about in the second line of defence rules.

“But we need to continually look at how we deliver that. We think the signposting happens at the wrong point. We would love to see guidance become the social norm and think it should be similar to NHS checks. The Government could handle when you are alerted; at a certain age, for example.”

She  says too many people are approaching providers having already made up their mind about what they will do. “When you phone a provider you’ve made a level of emotional commitment and you’re more in a transactional mode. We need to catch people before they’ve done that and get them to consider things earlier.”

Both TPAS’s national helpline and the Pension Wise appointments will also have to adapt, says Cracknell. Staff have already had training from the Council of Mortgage Lenders as a result of an increase in users asking about housing issues. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done but it’s still only the tip of the iceberg.”

CV

2013-present: Chief executive, The Pensions Advisory Service

2010-2013: Consultant, Bluerock Consulting

2007-2010: Strategy director, Skandia

1988-2007: Director, Advisory and Brokerage

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