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The scrutiny of finance professionals

Ian Welch

With pressure on public finances being at an all-time high on most countries - and public trust in both business and governmental institutions seemingly being at the other end of the scale - the role of finance professionals will come under increasing scrutiny.

A new report by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA), Setting high professional standards for public services around the world, analyses all aspects of public sector accountants' roles and makes the crucial - and topical - observation that finance professionals must promote whistleblowing laws and policies to ensure that communities can have confidence in how their taxes are being spent.

Accountants have a critical role to play in rebuilding waning public trust by championing the cause of developing anti-corruption procedures and cultures. To do this, they will have to work with other stakeholders to help eradicate fraud and corruption, through a combination of education, fraud- awareness programmes and training in forensic accounting.

This is no easy task, but it can be done. In the UK, the newspapers are currently full of stories of scandals in the healthcare, social care and police sectors - all of which came to light through whistleblowing by public sector staff. The fear of retribution and repercussions are always there. But it is even more vital than ever, at a time of unprecedented constraints on public spending, that finance professionals feel able to highlight issues where public money raised through taxation is misspent or misused - and that those responsible can be held to account.

ACCA also calls for proper separation between the accounting and auditing functions within all governments. In some countries that does not exist, which impairs accountability and transparency. The report accepts there is a challenge in educating the populace about the audit process - and in making it more transparent - to ensure public confidence.

Yet it could be argued that the public sector is, in many ways, ahead of the private sector in this respect. The ongoing regulatory and political inquiries into the role of audit - highlighted in this space last month - reflect a wider public sense of dissatisfaction with the auditors of banks and other major institutions. ACCA has consistently argued that the role of audit itself needs to be extended to take in issues such as risk management, internal controls and corporate governance. And yet the public sector is already there - in most developed countries 'value for money' audits are the norm. These are notably wider in scope than their private sector equivalents.

Under VFM audits, not only do the financial statements receive a true and fair opinion, but the auditors also have to comment on aspects of corporate governance and the effectiveness of the organisation's arrangements to secure value for public money. There is also a wider variety of reporting in the public sector, driven by its multiple stakeholders (politicians, citizens, investors, pressure groups etc) which require reporting innovations such as score cards. Audits have to satisfy all these requirements and audiences, which can be challenging.

Yet many of these audits are done by the same firms who seemingly find innovation much harder to bring into their private sector work. In the UK, the long-awaited report by the Competition Commission on audit competition has just been published and among its findings, the Commission concludes that there is considerable 'unmet shareholder demand with regard to information supplied by auditors' and that by putting the demands of management ahead of investors, auditors 'competed on the wrong parameters'. Overall, the Commission's report is a fairly bleak assessment of the current situation.

It is however, weaker on practical remedies to improve the situation. Amazingly it doesn't mention liability once - yet concerns over liability have been shown, via outreach carried out by ACCA and others since 2009, to be a serious deadweight on innovation. This issue simply has to be addressed.

But firms - and the wider profession - also need to reflect on whether there is more they can do to bring some of the more interesting aspects of public sector audits to bear on their private sector work. This really might start to bridge that intractable expectations gap.

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