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Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

The state of public sector accounting research: The APIRA conference and some
personal reflections
Jane Broadbent

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Jane Broadbent, (1999),"The state of public sector accounting research", Accounting, Auditing &
Accountability Journal, Vol. 12 Iss 1 pp. 52 - 58
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The state of public sector

accounting research
The APIRA conference and some
personal reflections
Jane Broadbent

School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

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Keywords Accounting research, Accounting theory, Public sector accounting

Abstract Looks at the papers presented at the APIRA Conference in the public sector
accounting area. There were some international comparative studies. The conference highlighted
the need to understand different cultural contexts; the widening of the idea of public sector to the
not for profit sectors and different technologies

In 1992 James Guthrie and I reviewed the literature in the accounting journals
generated by research in public sector (Broadbent and Guthrie, 1992). We
concentrated on the more contextually based research that had been
undertaken and raised a number of issues. First, we highlighted the relative
paucity of critical research in the area[1]. Second, we highlighted the
international nature of the changes. Finally, we suggested some areas where
research could usefully be undertaken. Our suggestions included: the need for
international comparisons; work in different sites to those already studied; and
studies of different technologies. We were also concerned to see more
questioning of the achievements (or otherwise) of the changes. The invitation to
review the contributions at the second APIRA Conference and add some
personal reflections provides the opportunity to revisit this agenda and to
reflect more personally and idiosyncratically on where things have moved
more generally in the last six years and where they might go next.

Accounting Auditing &

Accountability Journal,
Vol. 12 No. 1, 1999, pp. 52-57.
# MCB University Press, 0951-3574

The need for research in the public services

Given the relative importance of the public services in economic terms, they
remain relatively invisible in academic terms (Broadbent and Pliener, 1997). It
was encouraging to see a good number of papers presented in the public
services stream. Four of the 28 sessions in the conference, a total of 16 papers,
were dedicated to public sector accounting. This represents a healthy interest
in the area, which is not always reflected in all conference programmes, and
meets the call for more research in the area. The reason for this relatively
healthy interest may be serendipitous but may be a reflection of the location.
The interest in the public sector in the Asia Pacific region might well be raised
by the proximity of New Zealand, that nation which sees itself key in the
I would like to thank Richard Laughlin for his comments on the draft of this paper. Any errors
remain my own responsibility.

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development of much of what has been come to be known as ``new public

financial management'' (NPFM). It may also be a result of recognition that the
Interdisciplinary Perspectives conference circuit and the journals associated
with it[2] have been generally supportive of the public services research.
Whatever the reason it is encouraging to those of us who have argued for
greater visibility for the area.
International networks and comparisons
Arguably there is now greater attention to international comparative work.
Several papers provide evidence of work undertaken to develop international
comparative insights and understandings. Coombs and Tayib provided a
comparison of financial disclosure in UK and Malaysia, Broadbent, Jacobs and
Laughlin sought to understand the different institutional developments in the
UK and New Zealand. The paper presented by Olson et al. is perhaps the
broadest as it extends the analysis presented in the final chapter of their edited
book on international developments in NPFM (Olson et al., 1998). The project
that generated the insights of this paper should be highlighted here as it
provides an admirable example of the way in which networks of researchers
can be developed in order to provide broad comparative insights[3].
This paper provides a reflection on the nature of NPFM more generally and
will be returned to later because of this. Paradoxically one key theme of a
project that set out to study NPFM, was a warning not to allow the conceptual
nature of NPFM to be reified. Their argument is that the variety of national
approaches means that NPFM can be best understood as an idea rather than as
any set of recognisable concrete elements. Hence, the global comparisons show
the lack of a global model. This does not undermine but strengthens the
argument that there is a need for us to develop understanding of the practices
in other nations. However it does show that for these insights to be helpful they
must be rigorous and perhaps there is a tendency for those who understand
their own nations not to achieve the clarity required for the novice who is
bounded by their own expectations.
For example, attending a conference in Japan highlighted what an enigma
this nation is to me. Two papers (Yoshimi and Christensen) provided an
opportunity to explore the Japanese public sector. The former paper
highlighted the lack of interest in public sector accounting from within Japan
and the latter suggested it was strange given the overall interest in Japanese
management accounting that this had not been extended to accounting in the
Japanese public sector. In providing some attention to the nation and its
approach to the public sector the papers highlight the importance of
understanding the different cultural context.
Despite the need for detailed description of different national practices this is
still not sufficient and there is also a need for those developing international
comparisons to move toward providing cogent critical reflection and analysis
of the issues raised. In making a plea for an extension of this type of work I am
aware that the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in speaking of the global

The state of
public sector


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economic problems at the Labour Party Conference in September 1998,

suggested the need to develop more standardisation of accounting information
internationally. He seemed to suggest that this would facilitate greater
economic understanding between nations. I remain less sanguine and fear that
the seeming objectivity of accounting information will hide immense
complexity unless we have better understanding of the cultural contexts and
national institutional systems in which the different information sets are
embedded. Accounting researchers should be at the forefront of the
development of such knowledge and this area of interest remains worthy of
Research in different types of organisation: the boundaries of the
public services
The conference papers also show that a variety of different organisations are
claiming the attention of researchers. Servo, a welfare organisation and the
object of Parker's detailed insights, might be classified as a ``not-for-profit''
organisation rather than part of the public sector. I am reminded, in making
this distinction, of the fact that when the Broadbent and Guthrie paper (1992)
was in production, one of our first tasks was to seek to delineate what we meant
by the ``public sector''. This problem has not become easier and the boundaries
around the area continue to dissolve and mutate. The British Accounting
Association Special Interest Group refers to the ``public services'' in an attempt
to dissociate the issue of ownership from the nature of the services provided.
The description of the work of Servo shows how the not-for-profit
organisations are entering fields of service which in more recent times and in
welfare states have been seen as appropriately delivered through public service
organisations. It takes little reflection to recognise that historically this is not
unusual and reminds us of the historically and socially constructed nature of
what we define as appropriate social entitlements and sources of service.
Perhaps the prize for unusual organisational contexts should go to Boden et
al. who provide a study of two organisations I did not know existed: The
Laboratory of the Government Chemist and the National Physical Laboratory.
That the former has recently acquired a company with specialist expertise in
sexing parrots attests again to the difficulty in deciding what the boundaries of
the public services might be!
Both papers also demonstrate the centrality of the distinctive nature of
particular organisations. Hence, Servo is strongly affected by the value base of
the members and the laboratories are characterised by the specialist and
cognitive nature of the services as well as by the particular nature of the
outputs and the difficulty of measuring them. We still need to remain aware
that universal systems of accounting and management may not be appropriate
for all contexts and we need to continue the quest for how to address the
problem of providing transparency alongside situational relevance. Arguably

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this is a particular problem for sections of the public services where the proxy
of profit remains an irrelevant performance indicator and outputs may be
difficult to quantify.
Different accounting technologies
The Broadbent and Guthrie agenda called for attention to a wider range of
accounting technologies and this is happening to some extent. The conference
provides some evidence of this, for example, two papers (Yoshimi and Chong
and Dolley) looked at issues of audit. More importantly, I have a sense that
there is more work that is now concerned with the financial reporting aspects of
public sector accounting. This is perhaps a reflection of the increasing adoption
of accrual accounting and the provision of more corporate-style financial
statements. Hence, we are likely to see more papers like Coombs and Tayeb's
paper, which is centrally concerned with financial disclosure. More important,
in the context of my present discussion, are the papers of Stanton and Stanton
and Lye. Stanton and Stanton debate the seeming convergence of national and
government accounting in Australia, highlighting the problems of asset
valuation. Lye looks to the evolution of Crown Financial Statements in New
Zealand. Her claim is that the social forces that impinged upon public sector
management influenced the technical nature of accounting. She sees accrual
accounting as supporting a management system based on well defined
objectives and as a means to measure performance rather better than before.
I see the nature of financial reporting and of asset valuation as key issues
that will come increasingly to the fore. In the UK, the resource accounting
initiative in central government will quickly roll forward and already the
financial reports of hospital trusts are appearing in corporate format. Conflict
over the issue of accounting standard setting for the public services has already
emerged, in the UK, in the debate about the nature of the accounting for
schemes under the private finance initiative (Broadbent and Laughlin, 1998).
More generally there is a need for some rigorous and critical reflection on the
issues of regulation of the public sector. The papers in the conference represent
a start to addressing the problems but seem to fall short of any reflection on the
extent to which the nature of financial accounting is itself socially conditioning
as well as socially conditioned. We must move forward and develop a less
technical and descriptive approach to financial accounting issues. As the
boundaries between public and private mutate and dissolve and as the capacity
for internal management changes becomes satiated the new wave of
accounting change seems to be financial accounting led. Thus, this issue
becomes more urgent.
Evaluation: taking the agenda forward
Finally, three papers were concerned with the effects of the changes and
providing some level of evaluation, albeit in different ways. My own paper with
Kerry Jacobs and Richard Laughlin is concerned with the way in which change
is resisted in different ways. This should remind us that despite the great

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public sector


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efforts put into NPFM we cannot assume that the desired effects are achieved.
This raises the question of whether resistance is legitimate or not in any
particular location. Lawrence and Northcott have an answer and use the
metaphor of ``iatrogenesis'' (a term also used by Davies, (1997)) to suggest that
the medicine of accounting is proving harmful to the health services in New
Zealand. They suggest a need for democratic adjudication of the services. Hill,
Fraser and Cotton provide an interesting analysis which seeks to provide a way
to enable such an engagement using ideas of polyvocal citizenship which are
rooted in stakeholder approaches to the organisation and social audit. This
raises the key issue that of how we might have a way of controlling our public
services and particularly the professionals within them, in ways which allow
involvement and enfranchisement of all stakeholders, but which recognises the
expertise of certain individuals.
These papers, in my opinion, raise important issues that we have to address.
There is a need for work to address the issues of democratic involvement, the
role of the professional and the impingement on these of regulatory structures
and management controls such as accounting. If the services are public
services then how is it that the public can be involved in their direction and
governance? How can accounting information be constructed to support
democratic processes? Can accounting be used as a tool to control
professionals? Should the role of the professional provide privilege to their
views and if so how can we be sure that this will not be abused? We need to link
the exploration of these ideas to the on-going debate as to how we are to hold
organisations accountable in a democracy. Discussion on Humphrey and
Owen's appraisal of Power's ``Audit Society'' thesis (although not in the public
services stream) raised the point that the idea of the audit society was one that
was more easily associated with the public rather than the private sector. This
raises the question of whether we need different structures of accountability for
the public and the private sectors. At the very least, private sector models must
be scrutinised closely before decisions about their universal application are
made. We should also seek to discover what the private could learn from the
public sector.
Overall, while it is encouraging to see the diversity and quality of work that
is being undertaken in the literature and at conferences such as the second
APIRA, there still seems to be a paucity of work that is pushing the boundaries
of critical engagement with the public services. Given the crucial role of the
public services in respect to social welfare this is worrying. I would like to end
with a recommendation that accountants adapt and adopt the sentiments of the
Sociologist Mike Mulkay in a review of his own work over many years:
I have come to see sociology's ultimate task, not of that of reporting neutrally the facts about
an objective social world, but as that of engaging actively in the world in order to create the
possibility of alternative forms of social life (Mulkay, 1991, p. xix).

These views are neither unique nor very novel, nor are they specific to
sociologists; they are held and enacted each day by some colleagues.

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Nevertheless, they could usefully be remembered and applied more widely in

the accounting academic community, specifically, but not exclusively, with
regard to the engagement with the public services.
1. Defined as research that is sceptical of the ability of accounting to produce real change in
organisations, that accepts the importance of context and that seeks to question,
understand and evaluate. In making this judgement we were comparing the output of
critical research on public services with the amount of more positivistic work which has
become to be seen by many as ``mainstream'' research.
2. The Manchester IPA conference, the New York CPA conference and APIRA conference
and journals such as Critical Perspectives on Accounting, AAAJ, Advances in Public
Interest Accounting, and Accounting Forum to name a few.
3. Perhaps the fact that it explicitly addresses two of the elements in the Broadbent and
Guthrie agenda relates to the central part played in this project by James Guthrie!
Broadbent, J. and Guthrie, J. (1992), ``Changes in the public sector: a review of `alternative'
accounting research'', Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 3-31.
Broadbent, J. and Laughlin, R. (1998), ``The private finance initiative: clarification of a future
research agenda'', Working Paper, School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of
Broadbent, J. and Pliener, M. (1997), ``The public services: a hidden element in the academic
sphere?'', Public Services Accounting Special Interest Group Newsletter, 22 August, pp. 2-4.
Davis, S.W. (1997), ``Economic Iatrogenesis and Rawlsian justice in modern US health care
delivery systems: accounting's role'', paper to the British Accounting Association Annual
Conference, Birmingham.
Mulkay, M. (1991), Sociology of Science: A Sociological Pilgrimage, Open University Press, Milton
Olson, O., Guthrie, J. and Humphrey, C. (Eds) (1998), Global Warning! Debating International
Developments in New Public Financial Management, Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, Oslo.

The state of
public sector

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