Bank of England Future Forum 2017: Let’s Talk About Economics

Today I attended the Bank of England Future Forum event at the magnificent St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, a suitably opulent background for such an important occasion.

In recent years – as I noted in my blog on the Bank’s Writing Week panel ‘What Is Good Writing’ – the Bank has been making strenuous efforts to broaden its approach to engagement and communication with Markets, Economists and News (MEN) intermediaries, with the general public, and with schools and colleges nationwide. This was the latest manifestation of those efforts. All three sectors were well represented at St. George’s Hall.

There is still a long way to go, as every single one of the Bank Governors sitting on the Forum stage acknowledged. But the very existence of such a dialogue – which is what it was – would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

It is representative of the Bank’s serious intentions, driven partly by the demands and opportunities of the digital age, to re-engage with a mistrustful public. And to help lift standards of economic literacy of (and engagement with) non-experts to levels they have probably never approached.


Improving economic literacy

The event was organised in conjunction with two organisations which are themselves aiming to improve educational literacy and engagement in economics: Economy and Rethinking Economics.

It was a fitting start, then, to watch a video commissioned by the Bank’s North-East agency in collaboration with the excellent NE1Can organisation. This showed students talking frankly about their lack of knowledge about economic and financial topics, including the role of the Bank of England, interest rates, inflation, loans and what goes on in the economy.

A later observation from Economy (ecnmy.org) reinforced the sense of disquiet displayed by the teens in the video. The observation was that 6 year olds, contrary to what you might expect, love talking about the economy: about jobs, houses and money, about their plans and ambitions. Yet by the time they reach 14 they have started to worry, about those same things: jobs (will they ever get one?), houses (will they ever be able to afford to buy one?) and money (will they ever have any, or certainly enough?). And by the time they are adults, most have become utterly fearful, anxious and essentially disenfranchised about economic matters.

What is going wrong here?

No easy answers

To be fair the Bank did not attempt any pat answers. Part of the purpose of the Future Forums, and the Bank’s wider communication initiatives, is to listen to the concerns of sectors the Bank hasn’t much reached or heard before, to try to get to the bottom of this puzzling and unnecessary trend.

Much of the solution seems to be about education, engagement and trust. Through better financial literacy education from an early age, the voters, borrowers and savers of tomorrow will have a sounder grounding in the realities of cold, hard economic decision-making by the time they reach the decision-making stages of their lives.

There will still be a gap, while the older children and younger adults who haven’t received that basic grounding catch up. Tactical initiatives aimed at those older demographics will aim to go a long way to bridging the gap: the Bank’s EconoME initiative developed in conjunction with the National Schools Partnership, and just launched, is a live and current example.

There was a lot of focus on the Bank listening: with a surprising and welcome emphasis on the emotional aspects of financial engagement: how people FEEL about the financial devices and manifestations in their purse or wallet, their bank card, that £10 note or that receipt. How people FEEL about their interactions with money, banks and other economic agents, and about their own role and prospects in the economy. This is not touchy-feely counselling-style nonsense; it is the path to better understanding and to firmer ground for meaningful communication.

The big issues

And then there was a lot of explanation: the Bank Governors in turn seeking to crystallise and simplify the great economic matters of state in 2 1/2 minutes each: without using jargon or abbreviations. And then, admirably, opening up to questions. All economic topics under the sun were covered, from financial technology and the present far reaching changes in payment systems and methods, Brexit scenarios, bank safety and soundness, the inflation and interest rate outlook and the very live current debates on real wage and productivity weakness; explained in simple but unpatronising terms.

And diversity. There was an intense focus in the Forum audience on the Bank’s position on diversity not only in recruitment but more broadly in culture and outlook. That position, firmly, was that the danger of groupthink needed to be, was being and would be further still mitigated through a wide range of methods. These included (1) improving career accessibility across factors like gender, race, religious affiliation, geography, background and different, less traditional educational spectrums; (2) broadening recruitment approaches and parameters; (3) hugely extending communication channels especially social media; and (4) encouraging a culture of challenge and independent thought within the organisation via mechanisms like the Bank Underground blog.

Credit where it’s due

By definition, of course, the Bank was demonstrably proving its commitment to these kinds of change; by the very fact of the entire set of Governors sitting on a stage in Liverpool surrounded by students, teachers, lecturers, industrialists, charity workers, social entrepreneurs, market entrepreneurs, journalists and maybe even a few other bankers and economists.

So the Bank can honestly point to the evidence that it is walking the walk. It has generated a lot of goodwill and has captured the high moral ground.

Perhaps the key, though, to assessing the scale of the Bank’s task, is not to think about the people who WERE there at St. George’s Hall. They, by definition, have an interest: in the Bank’s work, in the economy, and in helping to resolve the difficult issues of trust, engagement and economic disenfranchisement that it so keenly wants to address. Reaching the large majority who have no such interest, despite the critical relevance of the Bank’s work for their prospects and pockets, is the bigger challenge, and the reason it is acknowledged to be a very long path indeed.

Still, credit to the current team for being on the path.
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