Accrual Accounting for the Public Sector - a fad that has had its day?
By Andy Wynne, email@example.com
The latest issue of the International Journal of Governmental Financial Management (www.icgfm.org/digest.htm) contains a useful review of the experience of implementing accrual accounting by central governments. Its findings should increase the number of governments which have considered this approach, but have decided that other reforms are more important and are more likely to deliver significant benefits.
For the last decade accrual accounting has been presented as the reform for public sector accounting. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the claimed benefits of introducing accrual accounting are not being realised in practice. Few countries have actually adopted accrual accounting as the basis for their central government accounts. Spain was possibly the first in 1989 followed by the celebrated case of New Zealand. A few other governments followed suit over the next decade or so, but, according to Wynne (2007), by 2006 still only around 10 of the nearly 200 governments in the world had adopted accrual accounting.
In Australia, New Zealand and the UK the evidence now suggests that, if their governments’ knew then what they know now, then the move to accrual accounting may never have taken place (Dorotinsky, 2008). Wynne’s most recent paper on this topic reviews the evidence which is available from these countries so that governments considering this type of reform can base their decisions on the actual experience of those few countries which have adopted this approach. Just as the current world recession is undermining the previously dominant view on the efficacy of the free market, so the failure of accrual accounting to deliver on its promises is having a demoralising effect on at least some of its previous supporters.
Supporters of the move to accrual accounting argue that a range of significant benefits are available to governments which move from the cash to the accrual basis of accounting. Such arguments have been widely reported and repeated at many conferences. However, the authoritative independent research which is now available suggests that few, if any, of these benefits have been actually achieved in practice. In contrast, the costs of moving to accrual accounting are accepted as being substantial.
Some governments may consider that a move to accrual accounting will provide the opportunity for a complete overhaul of their financial management systems through the adoption of leading edge twenty first century reforms. However, Noel Hepworth (2003) argues against such a strategy and recommends that:
before this reform [accrual accounting] is introduced, cash accounting should be robust, control should be secure, external audit should be functioning well and the legislature should have an ability to call the executive to account. (page 37)
Several leading OECD countries are still not convinced of the overall benefits of moving to full accrual accounting and budgeting, for example, China, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. A recent multi-country overview by the US General Accountability Office also concluded “Accrual Budgeting useful in certain areas but does not provide sufficient information for reporting on our nation’s longer-term fiscal challenge”. This reinforces growing recent scepticism on the value of a full transition to accrual accounting and budgeting.
The full article is available for free download from: http://tinyurl.com/ceuj72.