The pandemic has shown CAs at their best. Now we have to build on that trust by continually demonstrating how our actions benefit the greater good, says ICAS CEO Bruce Cartwright CA.
This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
When I speak to students who are joining ICAS to pursue their CA qualification, something I try to impress upon them is the role of the chartered accountant in society. Accountants have a duty to act in the public interest and drive outcomes that are good for all. And society repays those efforts with that most valuable asset of all: trust. We are trusted to possess the skills and knowledge to do our jobs, yes, but also to be a force for good. That might sound grandiose, but society and economies rely upon trust. It allows us to make crucial value-creating decisions which can be debated and challenged, of course, but are to be valued.
Think of this simple example of the credibility of our profession. Chartered accountants are among the few people who can verify passport photographs. That’s significant because it demonstrates society’s trust in us isn’t just about our day jobs. It relates to our skills in checking and verifying information, but it also speaks to that wider commitment to use those skills to do the right thing.
Trust is fragile, though: we’ve all heard variations of the old adage that it takes a lifetime to gain and a moment to lose. For CAs, building and strengthening trust largely relies on achieving those good outcomes for client and public alike. The pandemic has certainly put our skills to the test. It has blurred the boundaries – between personal and professional, private and state, employer and employee – and meant our profession is more intertwined with the public than ever before. Our work has helped keep businesses alive, serving clients and paying employees, while the storm has passed.
There is no better example of the power of private/public partnerships than that which drove successful vaccination programmes in the UK and beyond. AstraZeneca teamed with the public sector – the scientists at the University of Oxford for vaccine development; the NHS for the rapid rollout that really did live up to the government’s boast of being “world-leading” – to make this life-saving inoculation. And, putting people ahead of profit, is pledged to do so at cost until the pandemic is officially over. It’s a story about flexibility, of combining the expertise of different groups. As Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, co-developer of the vaccine, said in July: “To have reached a billion doses released only 18 months later is a phenomenal achievement on the part of AstraZeneca, who have coordinated manufacturing at multiple sites around the world to reach this milestone.”
Best in class
Combining intellectual capacity and professionalism for the greater good stretches way beyond our own profession, as we see above, but we have our role to play in being part of that force for good. For all the hardship, the pandemic has been the moment for financial professionals to demonstrate how they contribute to the successful steering of the economy and society at large. There’s no better outcome than helping to protect the health and jobs of billions. It seems the public agree – recent research proves encouraging. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which polls thousands worldwide, ranks business as the most trusted major institution, outperforming NGOs, government and media. It’s also the only one of those deemed both competent and ethical.
There are numbers specific to accountancy, too. Research conducted by Edelman for Chartered Accountants Worldwide found that the profession holds a special status for business leaders and key decision-makers. Among the thousand-plus polled, 75% said they trust the accountancy sector to do the right thing, compared to 69% for legal services, 59% for financial services and 55% for insurance.
The responsibilities of accountants, and of business more broadly, have grown in scope. The pandemic has proved we can harness our skills to drive positive outcomes, reaching far beyond the realm of finance. The resulting boost in public trust has also created an expectation that this behaviour will continue, and rightfully so. Our mandate to act in the public interest is not confined to a spreadsheet or a boardroom. It is an inherent part of being a CA.
To maintain and strengthen our profession’s privileged position, we must continue to develop our skills. The pace of change has quickened with each passing year, demanding ongoing attentiveness from financial professionals. It dovetails with our growing responsibilities to society, too. Much of this change relates to huge challenges that eclipse companies, sectors and nations. There’s been the pandemic, of course, but we also need to help society measure, analyse and address climate change, emerging technologies and political events like Brexit, to name a few. A lot of that work relies on broadening accountancy to include non-financial reporting. Our efforts as a society to tackle climate change, in particular, require comparable metrics, calculated and interpreted by trustworthy individuals.
At ICAS, we are clear about our role in equipping students and CAs with these skills. We have a responsibility to support members to do their best, and learning and development is a major part of that. The goal is to empower every single CA to offer the insight that drives business innovation, tackling the big problems we face as a society and helping to deliver good outcomes for all.
As a professional accountancy body, embracing forms of non-financial reporting is part of our strategy for the future. It loops back to that example of the passport above. Society places its trust in accountants because we demonstrate skills that are timely, relevant and, chiefly, in service of the public.