Strong Opinions Can Raise Profiles

By Simon Curtis, FCIA
CIA President

Through the many years of my involvement with the CIA, one issue that has consistently come up is how the Institute can gain greater public recognition for the profession and more effectively contribute to dialogue on the key retirement and financial security issues we view as cornerstones of our area of expertise.

How should the CIA contribute to the public debate? Should we be "advocates" who express opinions—sometimes strong ones—on issues, or should we play an "honest broker" role, presenting key facts to frame and inform debates but staying away from advocacy?

In the past, the Institute has strongly come down on the side of the "honest broker" role. This approach has been supported by a view within the leadership that advocacy positions should be taken only when there is a consensus within the profession, and/or when a position will not offend a meaningful minority of our members, or even our key stakeholders. In framing our contribution to public dialogue, these are high hurdles as even relatively benign statements on topical issues frequently necessitate taking a position. It is fair to say that one consequence of this is the profession being less vocal in broader public dialogue than would otherwise be the case.

Another consequence is that when we do enter into the public forum on issues, the result is often much less impactful than we would hope. Why is this?

Primarily it is because when one does not take strong positions, especially with the media, one is usually viewed as having nothing newsworthy or meaningful to say. As a result, for a profession that should be front and centre of the debates on retirement, health care, insurer solvency, and other financial security issues, our voice is almost inevitably muted. I do not believe this serves our profession or the public well; other, and sometimes less relevant, voices and bodies fill the void, and the very thoughtful perspective that actuaries can bring is not heard.

Recently I had a chance to discuss this issue with the leadership of the Institute of Actuaries of Australia (IAA). They had been concerned about the low media/public profile and impact of the profession in Australia, and took two steps to address this.

First, and perhaps most dramatically, they decided that all public policy statements must advocate a strong view or perspective. If they do not, no position statement is made. This contrasts with our Canadian approach, and the approach of the UK institute, which is to generally avoid advocacy positions. The practice at the U.S. academy appears to be in the middle. Interestingly, the reports from the Australian leadership are that their approach has succeeded in significantly increasing the profession’s media and public policy profiles, and has consequently met with acceptance from the membership.

The second step was to encourage individual members to write articles and engage with the media to put forward their own views on topical issues. The IAA facilitates this through its staff by providing contacts and other tools to help actuaries connect to the media. In theory this can easily lead to actuaries being involved publicly in opposite sides of key policy debates. They report that this has also been successful in raising the profession’s profile.

Given that the CIA’s longer-term goals include enhancing our contribution to public policy debate and expanding the profession into new fields, raising actuaries’ profiles is likely a vital step. The reality is that this will be difficult to do without individual actuaries and/or the professional body contributing in stronger, more provocative ways to any media/public dialogue.

How far are we as a profession in Canada are willing to go to achieve this is a key question we must address.

Simon Curtis, FCIA, is President of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries.