Accruals accounting in the public sector: a road not always taken Ciaran Connolly & Noel Hyndman Queen’s University Belfast The Road not Taken by Robert Frost Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. Introduction • New Public Management • Research Objective To investigate the actions of the public sectors in NI, as part of the UK, and the RoI with respect to their accounting choice regarding accruals and cash accounting Format 1. NPM, Accruals Accounting and Institutional Theory 2. Trajectories of Change 3. Research Method 4. Results of Empirical Research 5. Discussion, Analysis and Conclusions NPM, Accruals Accounting and Institutional Theory • NPM Reforms – variability of adoption • Institutional Theory – other factors Intensity of adoption of NPM Country High Australia Canada New Zealand Sweden UK Medium Austria Denmark Finland France Republic of Ireland Italy Netherlands Norway Portugal USA Low Greece Germany Japan Spain Switzerland Turkey The UK – From Cash to Accruals Accounting 1. UK - four separate countries within one main 2. 3. 4. political unit Devolution 1999 Traditional accounting model = cash Resource Accounting and Budgeting: Announced 1994 RA dry run 98/99, 99/00, 00/01 – live 01/02 RB dry run 99/00 – live 03/04 Mandatory central plan The RoI – From Cash to Cash with Some Accrual Notes 1. Traditional accounting model = cash 2. 1991 – Joint Working Group of the Department 3. of Finance and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General was established to examine improvements to government accounting procedures 1994 – Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) – rolling programme of modernisation and change initiatives in the Irish Civil Service 4. March 1995 – SMI Co-ordinating Group of 5. 6. Secretaries of Departments (now called Implementation Group of Secretaries General) to review existing systems, including financial management systems – resulted in DBG 1996 1995 – DPE pilot project re. accruals-based accounts 1995 – On basis of joint working group (1991) the Department of Finance introduced a number of changes (in circulars 1/95 and 1/96) requiring departments to compile a fixed asset register and to present some accruals-based information for the annual 1994 and 1995 AAs onwards 7. 1996 – Delivering Better Government (DBG) – advocated the development of accruals-based accounts (in addition to cash accounts) – within five years 8. 1997 – Public Services Management Act – specific legislative backing given to the preparation and publication of strategy statements 9. 1999 – Approval to develop a Management Information Framework (MIF) – separately for each department 10. 1999 – Financial Management in a Reformed Public Service – pro accruals accounting but suggested that there could be local variations 11. 2002 – Report of the Management Accounting Working Group to the Consultative Committee on the Evaluation of the Appropriation Accounts and Department of Public Enterprise Pilot Project by Capita Consulting - pro accruals accounting; highlighted performance information as well 12. 2002 – Evaluation of the Progress of the Strategic Management Initiative / Delivering Better Government Modernisation Programme – significant changes required; MIF considered by senior managers as ‘just about accruals accounting’; little evidence that senior managers in departments/offices were convinced that the MIF would significantly enhance decision making Research Method • Semi-structured interviews • 35 interviewees (13 NI; 22 RoI) • 22 organisations (11 NI; 11 RoI) Interviews Jurisdiction UK RoI Departmental Operational Accountant 9 11 Overseer/Commentator 4 11 13 22 Central Government Department 8 7 Overseer/Commentator Organisation 3 4 11 11 Interviewee: Organisation: The NI Story: The Accruals Road • Understandability, Use and Complexity of RAB • Cost-benefit Issues • Availability of Budgetary Control Reports for Department Boards Understandability, Use and Complexity of RAB I do not know if it’s being used… but I would be sceptical. .... I am not sure how many people out there in a department or a branch really use it to manage their budget… I am not sure how many working decisions are taken from the accounting information. I am just not sure. It is complex.... Even I don’t fully understand it. UKO/C3 I have no idea if they understand; they ask how much has been spent in the last five years on whatever, and you just give them the figures. I have no idea whether they understand what they are looking at but you never get any questions back again. UKA3 The concept is wonderful, this idea of matching things… But I don’t really believe it has made any great difference to the way we manage our finances. Also, it’s a great puzzle to me – I don’t get the difference between budgets and estimates and the actual benefit from reconciling our outturn with our estimates and budgets. UKA3 Cost-benefit Issues In reality I am not sure if it hasn’t just introduced a lot of unnecessary complications. There are additional complexities that don’t add very much value at all. The biggest benefit is probably on capital... Unfortunately I don’t think the usage of assets has changed because the accounting treatment has changed. UKA3 There might be benefits but just look at the number of accountants… the number of staff, qualified staff, now working on the accounting side of things… the cost must have been horrendous and are things really that much better? UKA8 The level of accounting expertise has certainly improved in recent years. There are many more accountants… But I wonder how many of them are just churning out figures that maybe they don’t really understand, and I guess many of the people who are getting these reports don’t have the background to understand them either. UKO/C3 Availability of Budgetary Control Reports for Department Boards Reporting to the board is now in place in most departments about the financial position. This was not something that was common even three or four years ago. Our view of it is that most of the departments now produce information, whether it is monthly or quarterly, about the accounts position. That must have a direct consequence. UKO/C2 Most departments have started to do quarterly, and even monthly, reports. Although I have supervised some that are struggling to get quarterly or even half-yearly reports out. I don’t think some of the people preparing it actually understand it. On the boards, while all Directors of Finance are supposed to be qualified, apart from them, I am not sure how many others would have a clear understanding of Resource Accounting. UKO/C3 The RoI Story: The Sceptic’s Road • Initial Enthusiasm and Influences from Elsewhere • RoI Pragmatism vs UK Dogmatism • The Outcome Initial Enthusiasm and Influences from Elsewhere The first objective was to improve the quality and efficiency of financial reporting. It was certainly felt that there were significant gaps in financial reports in the civil service. RoIO/C1 The genesis for SMI was this MSc group of Assistant Secretaries that visited New Zealand and Australia. They were influenced by what they saw there. When they came back, one of the things on the agenda was accruals accounting. They saw this as a better way of doing things. RoIO/C4 I do not feel the UK influence was strong at all. We brought some guys over who had been involved in rolling out accruals accounting in the UK. I think we totally frustrated them because we were just concerned with having good management information systems and they couldn’t convince us that moving to accruals for reporting and budgeting was inherently better. My own experience is that the UK had very little influence. We looked at what others did and at the end of the day we did our own thing. RoIA2 RoI Pragmatism vs UK Dogmatism The way we do things is to take things a piece at a time then stop and say ‘is this what we want to do?’ There is very little of that in the UK. RoIA5 My view is that we are not ideologically driven. I don’t think you would meet an Irish politician who would say we’ve got to follow New Public Management as a way of changing how the country is managed. …You wouldn’t find people here ever describing a government’s policies as ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘Blairite’ as a way of defining their policies. RoIO/C2 We did a pilot it and it resulted in a report. But nobody seemed to be convinced and it didn’t light any light bulbs for anyone. RoIA3 The Outcome The big disadvantage of accruals accounting is that there would be a big resource issue for departments, not only in terms of the staff needed but also building up the skills to do it. People who are not of a financial reporting background generally feel there is not any point in carrying out accruals accounting. They don’t believe there is a need for it. RoIA1 From my own perspective the objective of going to accruals accounting has just faded away. … At a senior level inter-departmental committee I can recall a senior official in the Department of Finance saying that when it comes to accruals accounting I would advise you to make haste slowly. RoIA5 There is a difference in the UK and Ireland and the way these things happen. In the UK it is mandated and everyone does it. … We [RoI] find a lot of change is bottom up or more consensual. You do find things that evolve into a middle ground and I suspect that’s one way of looking at the accruals issue. … You didn’t get a middle ground forming in which several parties are suddenly saying we need to have this and we should be doing this. When you get that then it becomes diffused and fades. RoIO/C4 Discussion and Analysis • Different trajectories – unsurprising in • • • • • • terms of NPM adoption (fits with variability in intensity of NPM literature) Cost-benefit issues discouraged RoI RoI intially committed but little happened – influence of ‘MSc’ group Coercive isomorphism in UK – bottom-up approach in RoI Political, ideological and cultural rationale Success in UK?? The better way? The Road not Taken by Robert Frost Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.