Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick
Last month the CSEAR Ireland conference was held at the University of Limerick, bringing together social and environmental accounting scholars from all over the world. CSEAR is the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research, based at the University of St Andrews, Scotland (https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/csear/). The first annual CSEAR Summer School, which is now usually hosted by St Andrews, was held in 1990 and conferences around the world have sprung up since – North America, Australia, South America, Spain, China – and for the first time this year, Ireland.
The theme of the conference was “Public Interest and the Common Good”, which proved a catalyst for some great discussions on the purpose of accounting and why accountability, and social and environmental accounting research, matters (or not?)
Much of that debate occured in Thursdays’ plenary on “Accountability and the Public Interest” featuring keynotes from Prof. Jesse Dillard, University of Florida and Dr. Mary Canning of University College Dublin. Speaking first, Mary Canning discussed how we define “public interest” and the “common good”, citing among others Cochran (1974) and Willmott (1990) (see references below). She used the work of Dellaportas and Davenport (2008) to explain that the accounting profession has moved to the “abolitionist” perspective on public interest, which in fact privileges the pursuit of self-interest. Mary closed with a number of thought-provoking research questions for accounting scholars.
Mary Canning’s suggestions for further research
Jesse Dillard spoke next in interactive style, encouraging audience participation from the start and turning the plenary into a lively debate. He suggested that it is the responsibility of academics to act as conscience, critic and counselor to business and the accounting profession, partcipating in and perhaps influencing the public discourse on accounting. He observed that “we are creating a whole new discipline called accountability”, but questioned whether the term is an open signifier or a vacuous one. Jesse suggested that we need to clarify the meaning of accountability and work on “building a conceptual infrastructure around accountability”, and perhaps his framework below is a useful place to start.
Can transparency enable participation? Jesse Dillard’s take on accountability
Jesse then went on to discuss the theory behind accountability. He suggested that it is about trust, or lack thereof: “if I trusted you entirely I wouldn’t need accountability”. Ultimately he encouraged us all to think about why we were there at the conference, why do we care about accountability and why does it matter? We are rationalists, he argued, with a faith that human beings will make rational decisions. Therefore we call for accountability and transparency in the belief that those accounted to e.g. the public, regulators, will act on the information then provided e.g. boycott or impose penalties on companies.
Apart from the plenary, some excellent papers were presented throughout the day, and a few are summarised here, with apologies to the authors whose sessions I didn’t manage to attend.
Earlier on Jesse Dillard presented a paper on accounting and accountability in a fascinating organisation – a cattle ranchers co-op in Colorado (http://www.countrynaturalbeef.com/). Himself and co-author Madeline Pullman posed a number of intriguing research questions:
- Can a commercial enterprise survive in the long run with its primary objective being something other than maximising shareholder value?
- What would that organisation look like?
- What types of accounting systems would be facilitative?
- Is the economic result the means or the end?
The key objective of this organisation, rather than maximising shareholder value, is to keep the next generation on the ranch. He suggested that the organisation has developed its own management and accounting system based around supporting its key objective, and that this is what enables the organisation to survive.
Matthew Scobie from the University of Sheffield looked at accountability in the deep sea oil exploration industry in New Zealand, drawing on a range of interviews with actors in the accountability arena, including local activists. He suggested that there were many different “accounts” within the arena, it was in fact “overwhelmed” by accounts. For example, the protests of the activists were informal systems of accountability. However, there were few expectations of accountability – people didn’t trust the organisations involved and expected the government to look after the country’s natural resources. The paper promises to be an interesting read once it is published. Also useful to note is the paper on accountability in football by Cooper and Johnston (2012), which Matthew drew on for his theory development.
All the way from the University of Florida, Dennis Huber explored the conceptual framework around the “public interest”, focusing on its treatment by the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). He highlighted that the FASB definitions of financial statement users do not mention the public. The mission of FASB and the SEC, he argued, is to protect the market, not the public interest.
Brigitte de Graff, Vrije University, Amsterdam, presented an interesting paper where she used the literature on management fashions, including Abrahamson (1996), to ask if integrated reporting (iirc.com) is a management fad. She found that integrated reporting does fit the management fashion trends, and noted that natural and manufactured capital is not mentioned at all in IR, making it an incomplete framework. Her paper led to a thoughtful discussion, with one audience member suggesting drily that if integrated reporting is fashionable maybe that’s a good thing because it may disappear soon. See Thomson (2015) for a further critique of IR.
On Thursday afternoon Markus Milne, Professor of Accounting at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, presented his beautifully-titled paper co-authored with Rob Gray: “The Unbelievable in Pursuit of the Inconceivable: Empiricism and the Social Construction of Corporate Environmental Performance”. Key to this paper was a critique of what the authors called the “over simplification” of measures of corporate environmental performance (CEP) in large quantitative studies. He argued that all of the different measures used are to do with the firm, not the environment; “this is a narrative about the organisation not about ecology” and “ecology is partitioned off because it’s too hard”.
Markus Milne explores Corporate Environmental Performance measures in the literature
Per Milne and Gray’s thesis, these measures take on too much significance and become reified, they “become the thing”, when in reality the issues from an ecological perspective are so complex that it is “inconceivable that we could track effects back to causes”. During the presentation Markus also drew our attention to a number of related books, for future reference:
- The Meaning of Truth – http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674697379
- Mismeasuring our Lives – http://thenewpress.com/books/mismeasuring-our-lives
- Our Stolen Future – http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/
- Toms River – https://www.amazon.com/Toms-River-Story-Science-Salvation/dp/055380653X
The final paper of the day came from conference organisers Sheila Killian and Philip O’Regan of UL, who presented their fascinating early stage case study on accountability in the Makana township in South Africa. In response to water problems, a company, MobiSAM, has set up a “Social Accountability Monitor” (http://www.blog.mobisam.net/) which residents can use to report water problems. Citing the work of Cooper and Owen (2007), Killian and O’Regan suggested that this changes the way people can engage with accountability process; they can be more empowered actors. However, they have not yet decided on the answer to their research question: “is accountability being created at all?” Jesse Dillard might call that an appropriate way to close the day.
Links to in-text references
Abrahamson (1996) – http://amr.aom.org/content/21/1/254.short
Cochran (1974) – https://www.jstor.org/stable/2129473?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Cooper and Johnston (2012) – http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/09513571211225060
Cooper and Owen (2007) – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361368207000219
Dellaportas and Davenport (2008) – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1045235407000706
Munzio et al (2016) – http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/44207774/Muzio_Faulconbridge_Gabbioneta_Greenwood_final_onlinbe_version.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1478853201&Signature=4rT35mBBRdTyDIjDsX2vzEUx1Bk%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DBAD_APPLES_BAD_BARRELS_AND_BAD_CELLARS_A.pdf
Thomson (2015) – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1045235414000756
Willmott (1990) – http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-09786-9_16