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Blog series – David Roberts

Trust is at the very heart of financial services, so it’s nothing short of a tragedy that an industry so reliant on trust should have lost so much of the public’s confidence. We are not alone in this. In January, for the first time, the Edelman Trust barometer recorded a simultaneous decline in trust across all four of its constituencies – governments, business, media and NGOs.

In past eras, building societies were created by people who knew each other and met socially, providing that essential glue of trust. Meanwhile, large banks built giant edifices to reassure customers they wouldn’t abscond with their money. But there has always been scepticism about the motives of bankers, right back to the money lenders in ancient times. Today it’s commonplace to believe that financial services has not been run for the greater good, but for the benefit of a narrow “elite” who escape censure and justice when things go wrong.

And yet, financial services are a vital part of our economy, with the capacity to improve the life chances and wellbeing of individuals and of the country. With the advent of a digital revolution which will change dramatically the industry’s business model and upend the competitive landscape, regaining trust is mission critical for all market participants. So how can the sector become a respected contributor to the social and economic good once again and regain its legitimacy in the eyes of society?

At Nationwide, we believe this fundamentally starts with purpose, ethos and values. As a building society, we were born of a social, not a commercial purpose, and this alignment of interest between the Society, it members and the communities we serve is fundamental to how we think and make decisions. Of course, regulation plays a necessary and important role, through rules and principles, but it is not sufficient. Voluntary initiatives including, importantly, the Banking Standards Board are valuable; they maintain scrutiny on firms, and work in partnership with leaders of financial organisations. However, they can only be an enabler.

Regaining the trust of society starts and finishes with the Board, the leaders and the colleagues within firms, and a clear and concrete commitment to ensuring the interests of customers and wider society are placed on an equal footing with the interests of the owners. In other words, it’s about the culture and values of the organisation.

Culture is not about putting words on walls, running programmes or making big, bold pronouncements. Rather, it is about providing a clear sense of how we expect everyone in the Society to approach the decisions, big and small, that we face every day, and how we wish to balance the interests of the various stakeholders we have the privilege to serve.

Therefore, at Nationwide, alongside rules and best practice, we take a values-based approach. Put simply, it is our values that determine how we instinctively behave and provide the “polar north” that shapes the decisions we take every day…

Values mirror and are inseparable from the culture of an organisation. At Nationwide, we believe that our mutual ethos has produced an ethic of care and a norm of doing the right thing by our members. This golden thread, explicitly encapsulated for the last 15 years in our five “PRIDE” values, flows right back to our roots, when our founding fathers established that ‘borrowers should be treated as… customers… as though the society was established for them…’.

This ethos has shaped our behaviour through many challenging times. For example, during the Second World War when homes were being bombed, loans were extended and deferred, and managers were told to deal with customers with ‘simplicity, sympathy and speed’. In other words, empathy and values were considered alongside the rules.

I am not arguing that mutuality by itself guarantees good practice; many companies also have strong values and culture. These will be essential to repairing trust in our industry and allowing it to play its valuable role in people’s lives. Rules, regulations and best practice play an important role, but ultimately, it will be the culture of our organisations and the way the culture translates into actions which will determine whether our industry can become a respected contributor to the social and economic good again.

David Roberts, Chairman, Nationwide Building Society

Senior Managers and Certification Regime

Exploring how the SMCR - and especially Certification - can be implemented in the most effective way across the sector.

The Senior Managers and Certification Regime is a major regulatory change that will affect all banks and building societies. Responding to recommendations by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, the government and regulators have together developed a comprehensive framework to ensure better accountability and responsibility for behaviour, competence and culture in banks and building societies. The new framework provides an opportunity for the industry to focus on and demonstrate a culture of professionalism. We are working with firms and regulators to facilitate this, including areas where a common approach across firms could support both the objectives of the regime and the skills and development of the people covered by it.

Professionalism

Evaluating whether a more 'professional' approach to banking would improve behaviour and competence across the industry.

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards found that 'banking culture has all too often been characterised by an absence of any sense of collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of the industry', and argued that a greater focus on professionalism could be an answer to this. Working with a leading team at the University of Leeds, we are researching the issues around professionalism in banking. In particular, we are reviewing how professional qualifications are currently used across the sector, and at whether a stronger role for professional bodies, along the lines seen in some other sectors, like medicine or law, would help raise standards. To inform this work and develop a rounded picture of 'professionalism' and what it means in banking, we are surveying banks and building societies, professional bodies and a wide range of other interested groups, including consumer bodies and investors.

Assessments

Providing an honest and impartial assessment to Boards of progress against objectives on behaviour, competence and culture.

The BSB assessment exercise presents Boards with an objective and impartial view of their firm's culture, identifying where things are working well and recommending areas for improvement. It draws on information not only from Boards and senior teams, but also from employees, investors (or members), trade unions, customer groups and other relevant bodies. In doing so, it will provide constructive challenge to each firm individually, while building a collective understanding of common issues across the industry, or sectors within it. We undertook our first annual assessment exercise in 2015 with ten firms (Barclays, Citi, HSBC Bank, Lloyds Banking Group, Metro Bank, Morgan Stanley International, Nationwide, RBS, Santander UK and Standard Chartered). The BSB itself will not publish individual assessment reports - each firm owns its own report - but key themes and messages will be set out in the BSB's annual report, the first of which will be published in Spring 2016. Given that Board engagement is central to the assessment work, only firms that have their headquarters in the UK are eligible for the full assessment exercise. All firms, including branches of firms headquartered overseas, will however be included in a focused membership-wide survey, which will allow each participating firm to benchmark itself against its peer group.

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HAS YOUR BANK FAILED TO RESPOND ADEQUATELY TO A COMPLAINT?

If your bank/building society has not responded adequately, or in time, to a complaint that you have already made, you can register your complaint with the Financial Ombudsman Service. Which offers a guide on consumer rights when taking a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

ARE YOU SEEKING GUIDANCE ON YOUR FINANCIAL AFFAIRS?

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ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT ACTIVITIES CONDUCTED IN YOUR INDUSTRY?

If you work in the financial services industry and are concerned about any activities conducted by your employer or any other firm or individual, you may find the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority's guidelines on whistleblowing helpful. It explains what constitutes whistleblowing, and what procedures are in place to respond to blow the whistle and how your anonymity would be protected. Public Concern at Work, the whistleblowing charity, also offers support and advice to individuals and employers about how to report concerns and how to establish whistleblowing frameworks.

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If you are seeking the services of an independent financial adviser, Unbiased may be able to help, or if you are looking for more general financial guidance, the Money Advice Service may be a useful place to start.