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Independent oversight: the role of lay committee members

Published: 01 Nov 2021 Update History

In a recent article, we asked accountant members why they sit on ICAEW’s regulatory and disciplinary committees. Here, we talk to lay members about their motivations for serving, what they’ve learned, and why they find it so rewarding.

ICAEW’s lay committee members come from a wide range of backgrounds, sectors and professions. What defines them, and what they all have in common, is that they are not and never have been a member, affiliate or employee of ICAEW or any other accountancy body. They do, however, need some experience of the accountancy profession, which can be as simple as having worked with, or appointed, accountants.

All the regulatory and disciplinary committees must have an equal or majority number of lay members. This is designed to support ICAEW in maintaining the highest standards of practice and professional conduct in a way that is proportionate, consistent and transparent.

In working alongside their accountant colleagues – who contribute technical expertise and practical experience – lay members provide independent oversight by offering wider professional and sectoral skills and a broader range of views. Lay members also often bring experience and knowledge from working within other regulators or regulated sectors.

This is certainly true for Harsha Shewaram Hildebrand, a lawyer and regulatory adviser, who now serves on both the Appeal and Review Committees. She has previously worked in-house for regulators in the health, energy and financial services sectors, leading teams preparing, presenting and defending cases in front of committees similar to those at ICAEW.

Her initial decision to join the Appeal Committee was part of a wider move away from presenting cases towards making the decisions herself. “Being familiar with the process from the other side, I was very interested in the role,” she explains, “and particularly the responsibility that comes from actually making a decision.” She also wanted to serve the public interest, protect consumers, and help to uphold and promote professional standards in accountancy.

Always learning

Tope Adeyemi, who sits on ICAEW’s Practice Assurance Committee, is also a barrister, and has previously been a member of the Bar Standards Board. “I really enjoyed that work, so I thought I would enjoy being part of another committee for a different profession,” she explains. “I’m also interested in accountancy and finance generally, so felt I could bring my insight and expertise, and also learn more about the profession.”

“It’s really motivating and interesting to work on committees with people with such a range of backgrounds,” adds Shewaram Hildebrand. “With every hearing, with every person you work with, you learn something else – either something factual or in terms of approach or method.”

“I’ve had experience of instructing accountants on a personal basis and also of working with accountants in a professional context,” she adds. “But even that doesn’t prepare you for the range of practice, the technical regimes, and the different ways of working – how a sole practitioner differs from someone working in a Big Four firm. I learn something new every time.”

Adeyemi has also learned a lot during her committee work, from finding out more about specific issues such as Money Laundering to compliance more generally and the standards within the profession. “It’s given me an insight into what is seen as acceptable, and unacceptable, conduct, as well as the expected levels of service provision,” she says. “And that’s been very useful.”

“It’s a very challenging role that requires as many people skills as it does intellectual skills,” stresses Shewaram Hildebrand. “The wealth of human experience we see is always surprising, and that’s then mixed with the professional and technical dimensions.”

She points particularly to the sheer range of people and attitudes that come before the committees. “Some people seem to have no concept of the responsibilities of working in a regulated profession and belonging to ICAEW,” she explains. “Then you have others who have tried very hard and got something wrong – perhaps they’ve misunderstood a piece of technical regulation. So it’s a nuanced judgement that we are making in all these situations.”

More than the sum

All the lay members we spoke to appreciate the collegiate nature of the committees. “The decision you reach together is more than the sum of your parts and it’s rarely mechanical,” says Shewaram Hildebrand. “You are putting all your knowledge, views and perspectives into the pot and coming out with a decision. That’s enriching but it can also be challenging when you start off with differing views.”

She suggests this team-based way of working may be particularly attractive and useful to people who may normally spend much of their time working by themselves or making decisions by themselves, for example sole practitioners or business advisers. “Coming together and making decisions is a really rewarding process,” she says.

“What I enjoy most is listening to what other people have to say,” adds Adeyemi. “You read the documents provided in advance of the meeting; you form a perspective as you’re supposed to do, and are ready to give your views. And then people will give their own view and you think: ‘That’s a very good point’.”

Listening to others’ views and approaches has benefits beyond particular cases or meetings. “It’s extremely valuable; you can apply it to other things,” says Adeyemi. “Just having that exposure to how people consider complex issues and decide how to resolve them; that’s useful in itself.”

Support and accessibility

ICAEW offers support to all committee members, whether lay or accountant, including induction and other training sessions. “I find it extremely useful in terms of doing the job, and interesting in terms of motivation, to have the support, training and resources that ICAEW provides,” says Shewaram Hildebrand. “As lay members, we are of course independent but behind and alongside us are our ICAEW colleagues, all of whom are of incredibly high calibre – like the committee members themselves.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, all the committees have been meeting virtually. And the plan is to continue with a mix of remote and face-to-face meetings in future. Virtual meetings and hearings have distinct advantages in terms of cutting travel time, and making it easier and more convenient for committee members (and respondents, if applicable) to attend. “There are both pros and cons to meeting virtually,” says Shewaram Hildebrand. “It’s a different kind of experience, but in many ways it is also much more accessible for everyone.”

Just do it

“If you are thinking of sitting on a committee, definitely do it,” advises Adeyemi. “It’s interesting and enjoyable,” she adds. “But you do need to be in a position to attend the meetings having pre-read all the information provided, and you can’t underestimate how long that takes. You need to assess whether you’re in a position to dedicate the required time.”

She also urges people from different backgrounds to consider it, and especially accountants who are earlier in their careers. “Somebody more junior, in terms of professional development, could contribute a lot, and they in turn might find it interesting and beneficial career-wise,” she says. ICAEW encourages applications from potential committee members at all stages of their careers.

“I can’t recommend it highly enough,” concludes Shewaram Hildebrand. “It is hard work, but I think you get out of it everything you put in, and much more in terms of a rewarding and enriching role that helps you in your day-to-day professional life, and offers wider interest and knowledge.”


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