Archives For

Gillian Fawcett-8525

By Gillian Fawcett, head of public sector, ACCA

The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis continue to play out and have led governments across the globe to reassess the delivery of public services in an age of prolonged austerity.

However, the outlook in the accountancy sector remains positive with developments showing that the profession is coming up with innovative solutions to meet the needs of public financial management.

ACCA’s recent paper Breaking out: public audit in a post-crash world shows that efforts are being put forth by numerous governments around the world to address the challenges surrounding public audit.

Contributors from Scotland to Bhutan, Australia to Jamaica, offer their perspectives on what has worked, what could be improved and what should be considered in this important area going forward.

The reports’ contributors highlighted certain areas of best practice and different approaches such as in Canada, where chief audit executives are now required to hold an internal audit designation. They also have a direct and exclusive reporting relationship with the deputy minister in their department. This change, quite early on, demonstrates the strategic role accountants are playing.

All the essays highlighted the importance of early intervention in saving money on big projects, particularly where governments outsource public services. Important lessons can, and should be, learnt from the crisis; there was clearly a systemic failure in both the private sector and the public sector to properly account for risk, and more must be done to account for this in the future.

All the contributors were in agreement that better financial reporting and risk management results in better decision making.

ACCA will be hosting a roundtable discussion at the end of April to look at these issues. Being held at the Palace of Westminster, the event will feature participation from the Rt. Hon Margaret Hodge MP, who will offer her insights about what Government should be doing to ensure public finances are not only properly managed, but that the right systems are in place to avoid costly mistakes.

Some of the key questions to be considered at the event will include: Are short-term cost saving exercises storing up long-term failures in accountability? Is there a case for auditors to be involved much earlier on in significant public procurement projects, particularly when considering the National Audit Office estimates the UK central government spends £40bn with third parties, if so what needs to change? Should private companies undergo the same audit rigor as their public sector counterparts? And, considering the increasing fragmentation of public service delivery, are there enough checks and balances in the system for parliament to follow the money?

Radical change is taking place across the UK government and public sector. In part it is being driven by the need to recover the public finances, an objective shared by all major political parties. As spending is set to fall by more than one fifth in real terms from 2009/10 to 2017/18, we must ensure resources are allocated to scrutiny. The government must take bold decisions about where to allocate funding therefore, resources for proper scrutiny must be a priority.

What this publication demonstrates is that despite the varying systems, there is a DNA which runs through all parliamentary public account committees and audit systems.

Five years on from the crash, there are positive conversations about how we can achieve more with less.

By Jigmi Rinzin, Parliamentarian, Bhutan

While Bhutan has a very good monetary and financial mechanism in place, we have only just started on the evaluation front when it comes to public financial management.

It is important to mention that this is not a unique position for Bhutan. The entire South Asian region is undergoing a shift when it comes to evaluation. This offers the countries within the region a unique opportunity.

Being a member of the National Council, a view of the House of Parliament in Bhutan allows me a unique perspective. I look at the roles of parliamentarians beyond legislation.

I am a member of Parliamentarians’ Forum on Development Evaluation (PFDE) with colleagues from other South Asian countries. We collectively aim to provide enabling environments in our respective countries.

In Bhutan, I’m a member of the Evaluation Association of Bhutan (EAB) where we work towards facilitating the practitioners, evaluators and other stakeholders involved in monitoring and evaluation for effective and efficient conduct of their roles and responsibilities.

A National Council Member’s foremost mandate, besides legislation, is to review performance of governments, NGOs, civil society and other bodies critical to the functioning of the state machinery. When you have a duty to review state functionaries, monetary evaluation ends up having a great deal of relevance.

Bhutan has a designated office: a division under our Gross National Happiness (GNH) Commission (Bhutan’s Planning Commission) called the Research and Evaluation Division. This Division is the centre-coordinating agency for monitoring and evaluation in the country.

Since the implementation of the National Monitoring Evaluating System in 2006, the Royal Government of Bhutan has been working on developing the policy for this subject matter. There is a need for a comprehensive policy on evaluation to ensure transparency and accountability in public sector development projects.

As a parliamentarian, I play a role in ensuring the right policies are in place that provides the necessary enabling environments. Although this might sound broad, what it means in practice is ensuring that we concentrate on developing a complete and whole evaluation culture and system within Bhutan, which at the moment is something that needs to be worked on.

To go even further, Bhutan will need to work harder towards the application of international standards in order to strengthen decision-making, management and accountability. Implementing such standards can be achieved through development reforms.

Effective public financial management (PFM) can only be achieved through better quality accounting and public audit processes.

In Bhutan, we have the Royal Institute of Management (RIM) which provides high-level training in professional development for management and growth in the country. RIM provides formal MBAs, postgraduate certificates and diplomas.

Formed in 2010, Accounting & Auditing Standards Board of Bhutan (AASBB) is involved in spearheading the development of Bhutan Accounting Standards (BAS) and Bhutanese Standards on Auditing (BSA).

ACCA is a body that could provide substantial support to the Bhutan accounting profession. Adopting ACCA public sector programmes for local conditions could provide a path for sustained and improved training. ACCA could explore collaborating with the RIM and AASBB.

When it comes to the subject of corruption, Transparency International’s index of perception of corruption for 2013 placed Bhutan in 31st position among 177 nations and 1st in the South Asia region. For a new democracy, this ranking is impressive.

Our arrangements for audit and legislative accountability has played a key part in allowing Bhutan to rank the highest among South Asian nations when it comes to the perception of corruption.

Bhutan’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) serves to reinforce our democratic culture by reiterating on principles of good governance, accountability, transparency and the public debate.

PAC members are chosen on the basis of their reputation for their integrity. The PAC is seen to add value to the audit reports through scrutiny of government performance. It reviews them, questions witnesses, examines facts and figures, gathers and sifts evidence, makes recommendations and conducts follow-up on their implementation.

These measures play a crucial part in creating a sound system and culture without which would translate to an increasingly difficult road ahead when it comes to continuing the Kingdom of Bhutan’s healthy track record of transparency.

Bhutan has achieved a lot in a little time and the challenge now is to sustain momentum in combating corruption and consolidating democratic culture in the country.

Through the PAC and other Committees, Parliament must go beyond financial scrutiny to assure every programme initiated by the government brings maximum value for money.

David Walker, co editor of Breaking Out, is contributing editor at the Guardian

Public audit is breaking out. Its core task remains independent assurance that precious public money is spent lawfully and effectively. But the ‘in and out’ or ‘injection’ model for audit is no longer enough. Auditors are assuming a wider responsibility, bringing them closer to executive management.

In the different countries of the UK, as with Australia, Canada and emergent Kenya and Jamaica, auditors no longer report and run. Securing value for public spending increasingly demands their sustained presence. They are having to intervene earlier in financial decisions then stay to follow up, checking recommendations have been adopted.

This expanded role results from the crash and – in many countries – enforced austerity in public finance. Parliamentarians demand more assurance that the funds they vote for are buying the services intended. Media and civil society, mistrustful of politicians, turn to auditors as a check-and-fail safe. Permanent secretaries and agency heads enlist auditors to expand executive capacity.

The picture painted by contributors to Breaking Out, ACCA’s new collection of essays from leading public auditors, isn’t uniform. Political circumstances and the autonomy of audit institutions vary. Within the UK, devolution, and in Scotland’s debate about independence, has opened unprecedented vistas for auditor generals to survey wider landscapes, looking at financial viability decades ahead and – sometimes quizzically – at lines of demarcation between local and central government and between adjacent agencies and departments.

John Doyle, the auditor general of the Australian state of Victoria, says auditors must go beyond the traditional sweeper-up role and take a more muscular role, assuming joint responsibility with managers and parliamentarians for improving public sector performance. The view from Canada sees audit as a ‘real time’ contributor to effective spending decisions by civil servants – it should be an extra administrative resource.

Intervene earlier in the processes by which money is allocated to departments, says Amyas Morse, the Westminster parliament’s comptroller and auditor general, and problems can be nipped in the bud. Providing assurance earlier in the life cycle of a project can limit the impact of administrative failures, preventing them from snowballing.

So audit should be peering ‘upstream’ at how decisions are made within government departments and agencies. It must also look ‘downstream’ to how services are delivered. Downstream lie contractors and the increasing proportion of public services that are outsourced to private firms. Auditors are supposed to ‘follow the money’ – Professor Ron Hodges of Birmingham University and ACCA’s head of public sector, Gillian Fawcett, argue: the trail leads to auditors examining the performance of firms such as Serco and G4S. Private sector auditors are responsible for their accounts, but the work they do for the public sector – and what they are paid for it – are matters for public auditors.

But not all auditors welcome the new expansiveness. Marcine Waterman, controller of audit at the Audit Commission – the English government agency that is now being wound up – says auditors are not improvement advisers. They can hold a mirror up to a public body that is not performing, but must intervene sparingly and modestly.

What happens, asks John Muwanga, drawing on his experience as Uganda’s auditor general, when public demand for better services lands on the auditors’ desks. He is worried by the ‘expectation gap’ between what auditors can do and what the public thinks they must do.

And yet public auditors are not going to escape fiscal fate. As long as money is tight – and austerity looks set to last, compounded in the UK and across the European Union by the health and social care pressures of ageing – public and parliaments will demand more value for money. Short of an administrative revolution in which general managers themselves suddenly acquire new financial competence, the services of public auditors are going to be in high and growing demand.

JP  03

By Jason Piper, technical manager, tax and business law, ACCA

To listen to some commentators, you’d think that the news agenda was about to burst from an oversaturation of tax stories. The tax affairs of politicians and filmstars are making domestic headlines around the world, while the activities of multinational companies have prompted consumer action from New York to New Zealand. It seems that internet and technology companies are as likely to hit the headlines for their tax policies as for the latest product or design breakthrough. Buying a cup of coffee can be as much a political statement as an expression of tastes, and the agenda for global conferences of heads of government is as likely to address tax policy as it is trade agreements or human rights.

Some tax practitioners are perhaps a little bemused by all the attention. After all, tax has always been important hasn’t it? Whether the state’s tax take is 8% or 48% of GDP, some things must be done centrally. It’s inevitable in any kind of organised economy that an element of surplus will need to be appropriated and redistributed for the common good so surely the approach of taxpayers to their relationship with the state and society has always been important?

There are some key factors which have brought things to a head. Firstly, there’s the economic pressure brought to bear on governments by the post-GFC world. Politicians need to be seen to be doing something if they are to command public support, and vilification of tax scofflaws ticks a lot of the right boxes. It’s not necessarily the most cost-effective way of improving public finances, but it’s certainly a popular one. If governments want to spend money, first they must collect it, and the determined abusive avoidance of their legal responsibilities by a minority of taxpayers and advisers gets in the way of that. It’s a fair target for responsible and measured action by the authorities.

Secondly, there’s a wider recognition that outside of any single tax system sits the web of global trade inhabited by multinational corporations. Unlike tax systems, which stick to rigidly defined legal and territorial boundaries, businesses can have the choice of where to operate, which rules to put themselves under, and how to account for themselves. The set of rules which the nations agreed on to try to govern the taxation of international trade were mostly set out in the 1920s, a world before containerisation, the executive jet and the internet. Goods, people and information are mobile in a way that the creators of the old system could never have envisaged, and that brings challenges for tax systems and their designers, resolution of which have been brought to a head by the pressures of the GFC.

Everyone involved in the operation of taxes has a role to play in the reform and rehabilitation of the system. Tax is more than just a bill to pay, it’s an integral part of how society works. And the same can be said of business – re-allocation of the productive surplus of society and aggregation of capital is what takes us beyond a subsistence society and gives us the scope to do things together that we could never do as individuals. But still every company is ultimately influenced by, and influences, individuals and the choices they make. The contribution that a business’s activities make to the tax system and society as a whole cannot be disentangled, and as the mantra of corporate social responsibility sweeps the world, so a responsible attitude to tax is a fundamental part of good corporate behaviour.

Carrying those good intentions into practice relies upon buy-in from management, advisers and stakeholders. Owners and employees are affected alike by corporate attitudes to tax, and can influence them for good or ill. ACCA thinks its members should approach tax responsibly, setting out clearly the rules of the system, highlighting the key features and opportunities, the main risks and downsides. And system designers have a part to play. Trust and good faith are a two-way process, and if taxpayers resent the system or the way it is applied then they are less likely to engage positively with it. Different countries have different needs from their tax systems, and different capacities to operate them .But the principles should be the same the world over, for taxpayers, for their advisers, and for the authorities charged with designing and operating the systems. By working together for a common cause, on common grounds, we can build a far better regime.

Read ACCA’s Global policy on taxation of companies: principles and practices for more insight.

Risk and Black Swans

accapr —  25 March 2014 — Leave a comment

integrated

Simon Constant-Glemas, VP Corporate and UK Country Controller at Shell

There are few industries more risky (in terms of the obvious risks, at least) than the oil and gas sector. These companies typically work in dangerous environments, often in unstable regions (in terms of both geography and politics) and are subject to the unpredictable variances of commodity prices and exchange rates. As a result, risk reporting is both a critical and contentious subject for the oil and gas sector, as was brutally illustrated by BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The disaster focused everyone’s mind on risk and risk reporting, particularly in the extractive industries. There has definitely been an increased focus around risk since Deepwater Horizon, because it was such a significant event. That and the financial crisis have made everyone more risk-aware.

I am aware of investors’ desire for more information about risks, but a more considered approach should be taken. Addressing all possible risks in a risk report would be counterproductive – more comprehensive risk reporting doesn’t mean better risk reporting. We employ more than 100,000 people in 70 countries, so any risk that’s applicable to a large multinational would apply to us. It is much better to provide a concise overview of the key risks inherent in the business that are most likely to prevent the achievement of its objectives.

One area where risk reporting might be constrained is where disclosure could be perceived to damage competitive advantage. I don’t think competitive advantage is an issue – you can strike a balance between referencing risk and not giving away critical information. We need to be careful sometimes about things like risks around a particular transaction but the vast majority of the time some information will be in the public domain already and so, if necessary, a more generic reference can be made. Suggestions that companies should try to quantify the potential impact of major accidents and events, though, are more difficult to address.

The fundamental question is whether a risk report can ever helpfully highlight the risks of rare but catastrophic events – analysts argue that an attempt to quantify the financial impact of a disaster on the Deepwater Horizon scale would be useful but understandably, this is something that organisations themselves are reluctant to do.

It’s the Black Swan effect – it rarely happens but when it does, the impact is massive. The difficult conversations about Black Swan events do take place within a company, but specifically disclosing all of the details in a risk report is another thing altogether. If you put a dark lens on everything and, for instance, try to quantify what the financial impact of a very rare disaster could be, you could scare away a lot of investors.

The nature of black swan events means that it is difficult to think about what the impact of an event could possibly be, let alone put a reliable figure on it, but I strongly believe that a thorough consideration of everything that could possibly go wrong is an important part of good risk management, even if the full details are not disclosed publicly. I do wonder if enough thinking goes on around rare events – I suspect that not enough people considered the probability of the entire inter-bank lending system grinding to a halt overnight before the financial crisis happened.

The main problem discussing Black Swan events in a risk report is that the context of probability is difficult to get across. Ideally a risk report should contain enough detail to start the necessary conversation between stakeholder and management. The quality element of risk reporting comes down to the conversation about risk that takes place, and that conversation should start with the risk report. A detailed discussion about risk is more likely to come out in a discussion between the CEO or finance director and analysts and other stakeholders – the annual report is not really the place to go into that sort of detail.

It is these conversations that are the most valuable to stakeholders, and also why more frequent risk reporting would not be particularly helpful. A certain amount of risk is strategic and it would feel more like crisis management if risk reporting was carried out more frequently than it is today. The crystallisation of an emerging risk or emergence of a new risk would certainly warrant disclosure but risk reporting should not be confused with robust and timely management information.

There are parallels to be drawn here with the increased regulation faced by multinationals since the financial crisis. There has been a huge increase in it since the financial crisis and the question is whether that drives better risk management or not. There have certainly been unintended consequences – at Shell we are captured by criteria that are not intended for us, simply because we are large. In my view it has the potential to distract organisations from good risk management.

My main concern is the raft of new regulatory requirements could result in organisations seeing risk reporting as just another tick-boxing exercise, rather than driving better risk management. We have to be careful that we’re not reporting on risk in order to satisfy a process, but that risk management is used effectively as a way to differentiate the business. In the past risk management was focused on mitigation, but today it is part of adding value to the organisation.