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Why accountability is an accountant’s big dilemma

By Otieno Odhiambo | January 21st 2020 at 01:00:00 GMT +0300

Accountability is a real problem in most businesses and public institutions, yet a lack of it adversely affects the economy.

The accounting profession should save the country from the economic abyss.

It, however, requires courage to instil such a sense of accountability. The pitfalls of an accountability problem are more pronounced in the public sector.

Today, we need more independent accountants than in previous years. However, professional accountants’ loyalty is torn between their professional body, their employer and their clients.

The Institute of Certified Public Accountants (Icpak) has a written code of practice that must be observed, but the lobby’s expectations and those of the employer are sometimes at odds. Furthermore, there are separate codes of practice for members in practice and those in the industry.

This explains why a professional accountant is torn between Icpak, their employer and their personal convictions. It becomes more difficult for the accountant whenever there is a conflict on accountability requirements by the institute and those by the employer.

The problems accountants face are either ethical or legal. They encompass misleading accounts, fraudulent trading, tax evasion and issues of confidentiality and independence.

Legal issues are easy to deal with, but this is not the case with ethical issues. For management accountants, the emphasis is on integrity and objectivity.

Top managers

For auditors and financial accountants, the emphasis is on objectivity, integrity, and independence. It is not easy for an accountant who is an employee of a certain institution to be independent because the instruction from the top managers must be implemented.

However, senior managers must encourage their accountants to be independent in thought and action. In other words, they must learn to interpret issues objectively and independently.

An independent and competent accountant is more likely to offer quality advice than the one who is not. However, for real independence to be achieved, the accountant must be philosophical in approach and be distinctively ethical.

One industry player writing on agency and on the responsibility of accountants said: “The obligations are mainly to the individual whom they service.”

The Certified Public Accountant in his characteristic capacity of being an independent auditor must assume moral responsibility not only to the client who pays his or her fees, but in effect to all those who may rely on his reports - credit grantors, stockholders, trustees, State agencies and so on.

They have a moral duty to the public, which can be discharged by the exercise of the most resolute independence.

But how easy is it to define public interest in the face of double loyalty? How easy is it for an auditor to observe pure utilitarianism? 

Financial statement

Not just that, there is the ideal truth that the accountant must report to the readers of financial statements, though no one is certain about this truth.

Experience shows that truth may be difficult to define, especially in the context of public interest.

Education has not helped the accounting profession as much. It is time universities started working with the accounting profession by way of balancing technical training and academic education.

We know that the adverse effects on the environment and the suffering of employees as a result of insolvency can be traced to unethical behaviour. Failure in accountability leads to political constraints that propel social disorder.

Accountants must study the role accounting plays in social conflicts. A concept such as duty and care are key to this profession, but many accountants join the profession for the money.

What does true and fair view mean, and what theories anchor that concept? The absence of theoretical anchorage in a profession makes the responsibility expected of a professional less clear. How many accountants know about keontology, Karatian and theories of justice that anchor the concept of truth and fairness.

It is only when accountants understand the theories that they will be able to internalise the significance of their services in the context of the public good. They will then move away from social Darwinism.

Accounting education should emphasise moral development in accountants. Ethics should not be a public relations strategy but the key to the entire profession. Accounting information should not be used to advance inequality in the economy.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi  

Accountant Accounting ICPAK Institute of Certified Public Accountants
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