Accountants have been under-appreciated for too long. We’re just not good at shouting about our achievements and the contribution we make, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the April 2020 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
The accounting profession hasn’t always had a reputation for being a bit on the dull side. Take the great days of beer drinking in the Middle East. The British Museum recently put on display a clay tablet from around the year 800BC, a long time ago. It reveals a very early example of taxation and the important role of beer in accounting for that taxation.
As the British Museum’s explanation of the tablet’s significance points out: ‘As part of a system of payment or rationing, beer was crucial to the smooth running of ancient Mesopotamian cities and empires.’ And the clay tablet ‘records a list of taxes paid in beer by court officials’. The accounting system was simple: ‘Readily available and easy to divide into smaller amounts, beer was an excellent form of liquid currency in the ancient world.’
This accounting arcadia is a far cry from our current era where the largest accounting and audit firms are being excoriated and ridiculed by politicians and public alike. But, as ever, there is a difference between the perception and the reality. It is just that the reality, like the workings of the accounting profession itself, goes largely unnoticed by the public.
The last time consultants Oxford Economics produced a survey of the UK (and Ireland) accounting profession, it showed that it had contributed £59bn to UK GDP, generated £8.9bn in tax and exported £3.1bn in services.
That seems a solid enough contribution. Yet the perception persists that this is a profession seen only through the prism of isolated, and large, scandals. What isn’t plain is the daily work of providing structure and security for individuals and small and medium-sized businesses.
Nor does the public see the work that the profession provides in terms of strategy and advice. If it sees anything, it is the regulatory side, the emphasis on the safety and integrity of the numbers. And it largely sees this through the few failures rather than the overwhelming majority of the day-to-day achievements.
In part this is the fault of the large accounting firms. Their history was founded on being the people who businesses went to for shrewd and strategic advice, often based on the insiders’ view that accounting firms, seeing so many different client businesses, had amassed. But in recent decades, under regulatory pressures, accounting firms have concentrated on the lucrative work of assurance in its many guises.
Like medieval priests
At the top end of the market the firms have created a type of medieval priesthood providing rulings that are impenetrable and arcane to the laity.
Terry Smith, the legendary head of the investment firm Fundsmith, pointed out at its recent AGM that the rules now meant that insurance company accounts, for example, were a mystery to virtually everyone. It is small wonder that these accounting technocrats are so anonymous in the public’s perception.
Accountants have also tended to be outshone in the public’s view of sustainability. The profession has undertaken phenomenal and steady work for years in the field of expanding the use and value of information, both financial and non-financial. And it has taken a leading role in putting in place the structures that force and encourage the business and financial world to embed a long-term view in their strategy.
But again this has tended to remain invisible. Accountants were pioneering long-term sustainability and measures to save the planet while Greta Thunberg was still a babe in arms.
But accountants tend not to take to the barricades to get something done. By nature they work at steady incremental change. And that rarely means headlines, still less the hauling of pink boats into the middle of Oxford Circus. This is also why there are no famous accountants and why they remain unobtrusive even when bringing about historic change.
A friend recently returned from an Italian trip. He had been walking through Sansepolcro, a quiet town in eastern Tuscany. He had spotted a bas-relief high up on a wall in the main square. Excitedly he had realised it marked the birthplace of Luca Pacioli, the friar who set double-entry bookkeeping at the heart of accountancy all those years ago. But, as he pointed out, the plaque didn’t mention that. It simply said he was a friend of Leonardo da Vinci.
Even the greatest of accounting heroes are only modestly acclaimed. And that is probably the answer. The place of the accountancy profession is of huge importance to business, the economy and the future. But the public doesn’t see the need to understand it. They just want it all to work. The security, stability and structure that accountants create is probably at its best when no one notices it or needs to understand its workings.
So let’s raise a toast to the Assyrians. They understood.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist.
"Accountants were pioneering long-term sustainability and measures to save the planet while Greta Thunberg was still a babe in arms"