Our society has been gradually drowned by five-year plans and blue-ribbon commissions.Increasingly, those participating in such groups are from other walks of life than that which they are assessing.

We have more ill-configured legislation in this country, suited to little but hamstringing innovation, due in part to the dominance of politicians and lawyers in the drafting process. Granted, many lobbyists work with such parties to write the details, but those editing and voting often lack appreciation for the consequences of their red tape on real life. The examples come from all directions. Legislation gets passed, then an "oops" is announced as to what was unintended, and everyone rushes to fix the obvious problems. Unfortunately, many less obvious, but just as onerous, shortcomings persist.

In this age of specialization, we seem to be asking generalists to prescribe how others are to do their jobs. Personally, I would like a trained pilot to choose the best way to fly a plane, and a medical doctor properly qualified in their field to determine the medical treatment for patients. In like manner, I believe the infrastructure of our country should be addressed, maintained, repaired and replaced by engineers and architects who know their fields, rather than talked about by politicians.

Expertise matters and we live in an information age that is interconnected and increasingly forces degrees of specialization to even cope with defining the nature of a problem. Yet we seem to deny this basic truth as investigations are called, legislation is passed and laws are enforced. As a consequence, we are in settings where a desk jockey tells a military person in the field what can or can't be done. We have Monday-morning quarterbacks asserting that because some battle or operation did not have an optimum outcome, then somebody intentionally did wrong.

As each attempt to fix a problem spawns even more problems, rarely is there even a small murmur admitting that the alleged fix created the mess.

DOES ANYONE REMEMBER?

I invite everyone even remotely interested in what the profession knew decades ago to read "Internal Control Reporting - 950 Negative Responses" from the January 1981 CPA Journal (pages 33-38).

That, and related literature, reflected a concerted study of the pros and cons of mandatory reports on control. Costs and consequences were explained and detailed. I personally read all 950 letters filed on that long-ago proposal. I also conducted extensive interviews and surveys of those preparing and using such information. Even the regulators determined at that juncture that the information could not support its intended action. However, when the Enron media sensation arose, that ill-conceived idea was dusted off and re-introduced under the rubric of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 - with legendary cost.

ERODING PROFESSIONALISM

A profession has to involve professional judgment. Any attempt to codify every decision that a pilot, doctor, accountant or other professional faces is doomed to failure. Disparate contexts require professional judgments that are anchored in competent evaluation of the substance of the matter at hand, not its apparent form.

Yet, as an increasing role by other than accountants has been assumed in standard-setting, evaluation and enforcement, professionalism has eroded. Such erosion can be analogized to reports in the medical profession of unnecessary tests and treatments being prompted by regulatory and liability considerations, while preferred methods are precluded or unsupported by governmental or private health plans.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was more likely to have any political figure in its membership than a seasoned auditing professional. One should pause at such a reality.

IN THEIR SHOES

Ask any person who is skilled at some task what the value is of somebody micromanaging them. I suggest, almost universally, that the response will be negative. While many will admit that they expect to be checked and held accountable for their performance, they believe that they know the common body of knowledge, will carry out the task in line with such knowledge, and can adapt the specific approaches applied to their own tastes and preferences. Few would wish to be forced into a specific protocol for their every action, and nobody would want the role of their judgment eliminated.

Return professions to their respective professionals. Monitor and regulate, and when necessary enforce, but let the professionals innovate and optimize what they do. Let professionals do what they do best. In their shoes, that is what you'd choose.

Wanda A. Wallace, Ph.D., is the John N. Dalton Professor of Business Emerita of the College of William and Mary, and has served on the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council and the Comptroller General's Government Auditing Standards Advisory Council.

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