Where’s that blinding light coming from, you ask? It’s the accountant of the public interest!

We looked a while ago at CPA Canada’s Complexity and the professional accountant: Practical guidance for ethical decision-making,

As we covered before, the broad guiding notion is as follows:

  • Professional accountants have an ethical responsibility to act in the public interest. In a complex world where values drive decisions and diverse stakeholder groups have a significant voice, this responsibility for ethical leadership presents opportunities as well as challenges. For the profession to increase its relevance and value, we need to collectively hone our skills and ensure that our perspective aligns with stakeholder needs.

The publication posits that in our complex environment, acting professionally and in the public interest is no longer a “clear-cut proposition,” – for instance:

  • …many of the “big” issues facing society, such as the pursuit of sustainable growth, managing and mitigating climate change, embracing disruptive technologies and striving for social equality, raise questions of values that have broad ethical implications. Furthermore, as sociopolitical viewpoints become more fractured and, more problematically in some regions, divisive, the assumed homogeneity of “acting in the public interest” breaks down. Objectivity, another fundamental ethical principle, is challenged in the face of divergent views on how resources should be managed and distributed, what is fair, how to balance the economy and the environment, and – in the extreme – what is the truth?

Here’s another extract:

  • Corporations no longer exist solely for their shareholders. As the impact of other stakeholders becomes increasingly important, changing social and political environments drive increased public expectations on businesses and on PAs. Yet at the same time, profits remain essential to business, in order to fuel investment, growth, innovation, staff retention and ultimately long-term success. Finding and communicating an appropriate balance is an important exercise for all profit-oriented businesses.

In a subsequent article, we identified some dire examples by accounting firms of conduct that can’t possibly meet any worthwhile notion of acting in the public interest. One suspects that in practice, the concept (to the extent it’s referenced at all) is discharged merely through avoiding clear-cut legal or ethical transgression, rather than through any such broader calibration. But what would characterize a true (as we might call it) “accountant of the public interest”? Some inter-connected (probably for the most part sadly impractical) ideas:

  • It’s appealing to think of accountants as story-tellers, fashioning otherwise chaotic data points into a comprehensible narrative (the story of a company over a year, for example). However, the accountant of the public interest can no longer pretend that all stories are equally worthy, equally deserving of balanced presentation, or of being widely told. Put more specifically, the accountant would refuse to work with entities that, beneath their rhetoric, are fundamentally inconsistent with a sustainable future. In the extract quoted above, for some businesses, the appropriate balance between broader stakeholder interests and their own profit-driven one can ultimately only be achieved by their liquidation.
  • The accountant would recognize that the public interest extends beyond some notion of current head-counting. A recent article in the Guardian cited Professor Nicholas Stern’s view that “economists have grossly undervalued the lives of young people and future generations who are most at threat from the devastating impacts of climate change..(and that discounting) has been applied in such a way that it is effectively discrimination by date of birth.” Stern expressed this explicitly in terms of an ethical lapse. Such observations might or might not directly filter into the application of accounting standards in their current form, but if nothing else, an accountant of the public interest would reject any presentation of current value which in effect only represents an unsustainable pillaging from the future.
  • The accountant would stand for balance, rationality and progress in all their forms. Although that might sound like an easy tickmark, it’s evident that too many people are effectively rejecting those qualities in favour of personality- and ideology-driven irrationality. To provide a specific example, Trumpism lies directly contrary to any kind of considered, sustainable future, and to me there is no way to avoid or “depoliticize” the conclusion that the accountant of the people would stand in explicit opposition to such movements.
  • The accountant would stand in opposition to entrenched social inequality and the corruption of great wealth. While the profession may feel comfortable in its market-driven rationalizations, the amounts it bills at the high end, in relation to any fair assessment of the work done or value provided, are frequently absurd. Of course, this is hardly the only branch of society for which such a thing might be said. Still, the accountant of the public interest would provide stringent transparency over billing practices, both as a matter of individual virtue and in the hope (however remote) of providing some broader example. Assignments with no social purpose beyond the propagation of extreme wealth would be rejected. (Topically speaking, it’s hard not to worry that the current virtuous momentum behind sustainability reporting standards will fuel a torrent of rapacious behaviour, rapidly undercutting its moral force).

More to come on this in the future, I expect…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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