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New ICAS research argues that for accounting change to embed effectively in the public sector, implementers should realise that those affected by, and ultimately involved in operating, new systems need to see change as rational and being promoted by those in authority.
The research report, Central government accounting: Arguing for and legitimating change, explores how changes have been discussed and legitimated by politicians and public sector managers in the UK central government, both Westminster and Holyrood, since the 1980s.
Over a period of almost 35 years, accounting, budgeting and performance management systems in all parts of the UK central government have changed considerably. Initially UK public sector accounting systems featured: cash budgeting with strict annuality requirements (budget allocations that have to be spent by the financial year-end or be surrendered), cash accounting, and limited performance management. Since then, they have moved progressively along a continuum of modernisation in financial accounting, budgeting and performance management in favour of New Public Management (NPM)-type accounting tools and ideas inspired by the private sector.
In the UK NPM-style accounting, budgeting and performance management tools have been embraced relatively rapidly and intensely. There is also a clear alignment between the language of the political discussion and the accounting changes decided upon and introduced, with both clearly directed towards managerial, NPM orientated reforms.
The process of accounting change is achieved by a “layering” of different ideas, where ideas from certain administrative models complement, rather than supplant, each other over time.
The political debate suggests that changes are introduced to provide a more “rational” way of managing and taking decisions. However, individuals often perceive changes as being based mainly on “authority”. To embed change effectively requires those implementing it to see it in terms of both authorisation and rationalisation; changes seen as being legitimated merely, or mainly, through authorisation are likely to result in only cosmetic adjustments.
In the devolved Scottish government, the joint reference to rational and authority-based elements when discussing accounting, budgeting and performance management changes showed a different pattern, with rational reasons much less present. This could be explained by the multiple levels of government with which Scotland has to interact as a devolved administration and that possibly contribute to feelings that non-Scottish solutions are imposed or do not adequately consider the Scottish dimension. This more limited justification of change as being both rational and authority-driven suggests that embedding change may be more difficult in Holyrood, compared with Westminster, particularly for changes viewed as “coming from Westminster”.
For meaningful change in public sector accounting to occur, training and education are key. The involvement of operationally focused managers in the development of the changes, as well as in the early process of change, is essential. To expect change via solely top-down, authority-based initiatives is shortsighted. From a policy perspective, recognition of this should impact on the planning and timeline relating to the introduction of accounting changes.
The research also informs public policy makers regarding links between new and existing systems. Given that existing accounting approaches often have long established validity, it is important to consider the interactions between new and old tools, that is, the layering of new on the old. Any proposed abandonment, or criticism, of valued techniques is likely to hamper implementation of new ones. To reduce resistance to change, integrating new ideas into existing frameworks should be handled carefully.
Michelle Crickett, Director of Research at ICAS, said, “Change is never easy and this report highlights the factors which need to be considered for change to be successfully embedded in an organisation. We hope the research will benefit those involved in promoting and implementing accounting change in central government and beyond.”
For more information contact: ICAS Head of Editorial Michael McGlinchey (+44 (0) 7799 583 409/ +44 (0) 131 347 0126.
The research is based on an analysis of 2,455 pages of political discussion of accounting changes and 34 interviews with key individuals.
This research was funded by the Scottish Accountancy Trust for Education and Research (SATER), now known as the ICAS Foundation, exclusively from the SATER funds. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noel Hyndman is Professor in Accounting and Mariannunziata Liguori is Senior Lecturer in Accounting, both at Queen’s Management School, Queen’s University, Belfast.