The Sticky Wickets of Governmental Oversight, Ethics, and Continuing Education
I had an odd ethical dilemma this week, that – since it was attached to governmental oversight and regulation – I thought I might share with you.
Part of what my company does is place insurance for our clients. Each state (or commonwealth!) has it’s own particular rules, but each requires some degree of continued education to have been completed by renewal time. In my state the required number of hours of continued education must be at least 24. You can complete these “hours” in one of two ways: You can sit in a classroom with other people just like you for a pre-determined number of hours. Or you can take an online course where you spend a pre-determined number of hours studying written materials.
Now if you take the class in real time you are required to have your butt in the chair for X amount of hours, but you are not actually required to learn anything. There is no testing to ensure comprehension, and a lot of people bring laptops and do work at the desks while the teacher holds court. (In one instance, I remember sitting behind someone who was wearing headphones and watching anime on his laptop.)
If you take the course online there is no way to prove that you have spent X number of hours studying, so you are given a comprehensive test which you must pass in order to ensure that you did.
My license expires at the end of this month, so I was required to apply for renewal. I realized a few weeks ago that I had not completed enough hours, and so I went on line and took two courses. One of these was a three-hour course on industry ethics, which is actually a state requirement. I was feeling rushed and have actually taken the course several time before, so I did the electronic equivalent of flipping through all the required pages in abut three minutes and then took the test. I scored 100%.
And then I hit the electronic “print and save” button, and a message popped up which stated that by completing the transaction I swore that: a). I was really me, and not someone taking the course for me, and b). I had studied the materials for three hours.
I was stopped short. The irony that I was about to lie about studying for the ethics test I had just aced hit me like bucket of cold water. I could either hit the button and move on with my life, or go back and spend a few hours reviewing dry, poorly written prose that I knew backwards and forwards.
Of course, this dilemma gets to the problems with government required licensing – at least in my industry.
On the one hand, mandated professional education really is important, and should be required. People in my industry act as fiduciaries for our clients, and the Byzantine laws and administrative rules that govern us change often enough that it’s actually necessary. Like most regulation, this requirement was not made in a vacuum; these regulations came about because my industry as a whole used to be frighteningly poor at providing the kind of advice we’re paid to give. And being fiduciaries, ethics training is an overwhelmingly positive practice. Without the State to require a level of knowledge and ethics, history shows that my industry is actually quite fine with ditching both.
On the other hand, the State is by it’s very nature a bureaucracy and as such tends to focus entirely on data gathering. This is why we now have a system where it is important that we get signed certificates for each hour we sit in class, but not so important that we learn or even pay attention in the class. In my own situation I described above, the fact that I aced the test was not as important as my having spent three hours reading. I could have spent three hours reading the materials and missed 30 questions on the test, and that would be seen as a better outcome than what I had accomplished. (I should note that in these tests you are never informed which questions you got wrong, so you might well walk out of a class being ass-backwards on 30% of what you’ve just been told was important to learn.)
So knowing all of that, where do we go from here? This being the League, I know that there will be some that simply say that any kind of government mandated minimum level of knowledge is inherently wrong; but as I said above, our shameful history flies in the face of this argument. It turns out as an whole, industries that act as fiduciaries don’t do so well for the people they serve when no one is watching them.
And yet the system we have now doesn’t really work either – not if your definition of working is keeping the entire industry well informed. And this leads me to a secondary ethical dilemma: Those of us that are deeply knowledgeable, and we are somewhat of a minority, profit by this system. Most of my current clients came to me because the people serving them prior knew just enough to be dangerous, and put the corporate assets and sustainability at risk. So who, really, is incentivized to improve things? I’m not sure that anyone is.
It might well be that there is no solution, and that having the State “signal” that being informed and ethical in good is the best that you can hope for.
But I wish there were a better way.
ps- For anyone wondering about my test-taking ethical dilemma, I did spend the time reading about ethics.