29 Therefore, in summary, accounting commenced with a duty of transcribing, recording and reporting. It then acquired the status of being responsible and progressed to include values, morals and ethics in its practice. It stands today as a multi-faceted discipline incorporating economic, social and environmental factors in its reporting. However, accounting has a larger role than merely being a tool for reporting financial results. The conceptualisation of “accountability” in accounting includes a responsibility to account for many things, both quantitative and qualitative, with the latter referring to quality of life, the social and environmental impact of actions and corresponding reactions. The practice of accounting must uphold the very tenets of accountability to all stakeholders irrespective of power, politics or influence. It must be composed of objectivity, morality, integrity, fairness and equity.
Having concluded that an element of inadequacy prevails in the practice of accounting in relation to the discharge of its role as a tool for accountability, we now examine and evaluate the features, characteristics and perspectives that must be incorporated into the practice of accounting for it to be accepted as a vehicle for accountability.
30 Another criticism arises from Tricker (1983) who argues that accountability emerges only when there is an enforceable legal right to be accounted to (i.e., the recipient of the accounts is legally entitled to receive them). Therefore, the preparers of the accounts only practice accountability in relation to obvious users and legal recipients of the accounting information. In more recent times, Messner (2009) has carefully evaluated the limitations of accountability. He commences his critique by classifying the notion that accounting should consider the impact of its reporting to every user of the accounts as definitely idealistic and unattainable. It is clearly impossible for the preparer of the accounts to recognise the needs of every stakeholder.
Against the backdrop of the classification of accounting by Roberts (2003) as an
“expression of corporate egoism”, and also the argument of McKernan & MacLullich, (2004) of accounting’s “unjustifiable reduction of the other into sameness”, Messner (2009) lends support to the practice of accounting being standard- and quantity-based by arguing that it is a necessity in reducing the complexities of accounting, without which the whole accounting practice will fail. He argues further that in focusing on the needs of “the ‘other’ ultimately suggests that the ethical dimension of accountability is regarded in one direction alone”, and that this could lead to ignoring “the ethical significance of demanding an account” (p.924).
In presenting his criticism of accountability, Messner (2009) uses the work of Butler (2005), who cautions that the presentation of accounts equates to a narrative; transitions draw on a narrative voice, and are governed by an authority and structured to persuade the audience. He asks how one can justify a fair representation when many things are subject to the narrator’s ability to recall. Therefore, the failure to account accurately may not arise due to the preparer’s lack of responsibility but, instead, could have arisen
31 due to an incomplete comprehension of the events for which he might not be directly responsible and for which he has to rely on the rendering of an account by another. In line with this, she further argues that standard rules are necessary for the users to understand and acknowledge the narrative.
Based on Butler’s (2005) text, Messner (2009) identifies three clear constraints to accountability. First, she recognises that in recalling events, experiences and occurrences, an element of opacity exists, inhibiting the ability to present a perfect account. The inherent inaccuracies are by no means attributable to a lack of responsibility but rather to a possible lapse of memory. Second, by being fully accountable to every user of the accounts, one is invariably burdening oneself with added responsibility, a task which the accountor may not be able to discharge reasonably under all circumstances and which, once undertaken, cannot be negotiated away. Third, accounting for all others places the preparer in a multi-faceted position, with each user of the accounts demanding a different form of information. Some even seek information beyond the economic frame, where the information has to be juggled with elements of values and judgment beyond the qualifications of the preparer of the accounts, thus placing the accountor in an unenviable position.
Shearer (2002) also concurs that provision of information beyond economic accountability poses a problem, whereas Roberts (2003) cautions that an ethical issue arises when the demand for information transgresses the limits of legitimacy.
Messner (2009) also explains that accountability to an audience comprising of people having differing agendas, as compared to preparing accounts based on a standard format or procedures, enhances the ethical burden of the accountor. She reiterates that
32 sometimes a conflict arises between the needs of different groups of users of the accounting information, and the accountor is forced to give more importance to one group over the others in discharging his responsibility. To provide an analogy, she compares the preparation of accounts for the profit-seeking shareholders to their preparation for a social and environmental group. This places the preparer in a difficult position of compromise, with the former group of users clamouring for maximisation of profits while the latter argues that the entity’s contribution to sustainability efforts is insufficient.
Accountability to a series of new and varied “stakeholders” requiring information over and above that provided under the standardised practice of accounting, draws the preparer to an insecure region beyond that ensured by the walls of accounting standards, principles and practices (Butler, 2002; Foucault, 1997, as cited by Messner, 2009).
Based on the above, Messner (2009) justifies that a lack of accountability to every stakeholder may not be classified as being unethical because being accountable to all places an unachievable ethical burden on the accountor. However, Shearer (2002) maintains that although accommodating the needs of every user and meeting the requirements of every demand for information are not feasible, nevertheless improvements should be made instituted in the accountability systems to effectively reflect the responsibilities of both the preparer and the user of the accounts.
In essence, the criticism against accountability is that the degree of accountability is influenced by factors such as the degree of power and control that the accountee exerts over the accountor, whether the need to account to a particular user is enforceable by law, and whether a complete reflection of “the truth” could jeopardise the position of
33 more influential users. However, later literature reflects an acceptance of these banes of accountability, and that to be fully accountable to each and every user of the accounts is a utopian concept difficult at times to achieve. A unique account to satisfy the needs of every user necessitates standardisation beyond imagination. Further, an absolutely correct reflection of the accounts is humanly impossible due to the accountor’s personal inadequacies. Problems may also arise from the conflicting objectives of stakeholders, which may ultimately affect the entity as a going concern. However, these problems rarely arise when evaluating the responsibility or accountability of a government towards society. With the concepts of accountability understood and the criticism against it having been clearly evaluated, we now look at the accountability of government to the society that it represents.