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New report considers the public interest and accountants’ role in it

What is the public interest, and where does it apply? Does it apply equally in all cases? And how does it apply to the role of accountants? A fascinating longform report from Chartered Accountants Worldwide member ICAEW grapples with these questions.

The report, ‘Acting in the public interest: a framework for analysis’, is particularly relevant to accountancy and the profession gets its own dedicated chapter. It addresses the profession’s public interest responsibility over and above the needs of an individual accountant or employer. It quotes the Code of Ethics of the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA): ‘A distinguishing mark of the accountancy profession is its acceptance of the responsibility to act in the public interest’.

Instead of setting out a detailed definition of the public interest or the common good, the report proposes a framework that allows for different meanings according to circumstances. The authors also point out that the discussion is intended for a wide audience beyond just accountants.

It argues for using the notion of public interest sparingly. The report sets out a practical framework to use it in situations where individuals or groups need to determine where the concept should be used – or to challenge its use by others. The framework covers five principal stages:

  • justifying credentials for the right to invoke the public interest
  • identifying whether a matter is actually a public interest matter
  • considering who the relevant public are, what they want and whether their wants contrast with needs or other constraints
  • aggregating sometimes conflicting input and resulting decision
  • implementing the desired action.

“The form of intervention we concentrate on in this report is usually by organisations seeking to change people’s actions through laws, regulations or other methods of persuasion. However, individuals can intervene by taking public interest actions themselves, for example by overriding confidentiality requirements to disclose bad behaviour by others,” the report says.

The report also notes that ICAEW owes its very origins to the idea of public interest. The accountancy profession in the UK first arose in the nineteenth century following the need for people to deal with the aftermath of unsuccessful joint stock companies. What we know as the accountancy profession emerged from this situation and regional groups of professionals formed ICAEW in 1880.

The full report runs to a meaty 78 pages, with an extensive appendix. It is part of ICAEW’s Market Foundations initiative, and is free to download by clicking the button below.