Marilyn Cole: Could our pension dashboard hopes be dashed?

There may be a prototype website for both industry professionals and consumers that presents the details of all pensions held but, worries Marilyn Cole, there are growing signs the final dashboard may be less useful

We are growing a little fearful our hopes for the pension dashboard are going to be dashed. As a design and technology agency, Space has put a great deal of thought into the presentation of relatively complicated facts and figures – sometimes directly for consumers, sometimes for financial advisers to use with clients and, occasionally, for consultants in the investment market to use with institutional investors.

In doing so, we have grappled with how to communicate effective narratives about – variously – pensions, investing, protection and mortgages, while setting the relevant numbers in the context of those stories. This means using the design to answer questions about premiums, contributions, asset allocations, income and all the other important numerical outcomes.

To take one specific and really important area, we have worked on projects to better present income drawdown post-pension freedom, illustrating a whole host of scenarios for potential clients. We have, among other things, set out the risks of staying invested, the alternatives and the taxation situation, but it is the figures that really allow us to pin down the reality for an individual in pounds and pence – hence our worries about the pension dashboard.

Although there is a prototype website for both industry professionals and consumers that presents the details of all pensions held, there are signs the final dashboard may be less useful. We are worried there will be gaps in the data. So, while the big ABI firms and investment platforms are likely to be able to feed in their information, it may be less likely the legacy pensions – particularly older corporate pension money and to some extent defined benefit schemes – will do so too.

At the very least, we would like to see a really firm commitment across all government departments and the pension and information regulators to get all the information on to the dashboard and not just for the younger defined contribution and auto-enrolled generation. Surely this makes sense, when we are talking about better informing the next tranche of the pension freedoms generation, which many surveys show are not well informed at all.

It also looks as if a lot of political pressure from, among other places, the Work and Pensions Committee will see the dashboard housed within the confines of the newly integrated guidance service – presumably on a revamped website. This will no doubt generate traffic for the new body when it fully replaces the Money Advice Service, TPAS and Pension Wise.

Yet we might suggest that a dashboard generally needs to be portable if it is really going to get you anywhere.

Firms might be able to white label it but, instead, we would make a plea for fully open data as a long-term goal if security considerations can be fully met.

As we move to system that gives consumers more control of their data, we puzzle over how this will not fully apply to people’s pension information in practice, except perhaps with patchy information at the new guidance body. It is surely reasonable to ask – if banking can be open, admittedly with a few stumbles, why on earth can’t information about a person’s pension assets?

As the arguments continue, and the next paper from the Department for Work and Pensions – supposedly due in the first quarter of 2018 – seems to be stuck in the printer, it has only added to our worries that we are heading for disappointment.

If we really moved to a system of open data covering everyone’s pensions, we would enjoy designing something effective at helping consumers to understand their accumulated pensions. If it involved a full role for advisers working with clients, complementing their financial planning skills and playing to their increasing strengths in working with data, then even better.

A well thought-through pension dashboard project offers a huge amount in terms of efficiencies – including the very obvious one of not having to drag information out of several pension providers and to some extent the government. It offers so much potential in terms of communications too. That should mean more people understand what they have got invested and, when appropriate, what they can do with it in retirement.

You can, of course, show things in general terms and financial advisers have always been skilled at those conversations. With modern advice, however, things only get really serious when you are talking specific numbers in answer to questions such as how much do I have saved and how much will I have to live on?

If a dashboard ended up answering those questions, it could prove to be something really powerful. Let’s hope it does.

Marilyn Cole is managing partner at Space