Look away now

Feb 10, 2020
The ability to judge the mood music of society could be our greatest asset in shaping how the profession is perceived, writes Dr Brian Keegan.

If you happen to be an auditor and are of a sensitive disposition, look away now. Apparently, you are not a member of a profession. This is just one of the suggestions of the Brydon review into the quality and effectiveness of audit, which was published at the end of last year.

Brydon’s work was prompted by public disquiet over high-profile business collapses in the UK, where it was believed that the auditors should have done better. The standard response of politicians everywhere to topics that make them uncomfortable is to commission a review. In that way, action is seen to have been taken and the discomfort is spread around.

There are many reasons, of course, why Brydon is wrong about auditing not being a profession. An audit is, after all, about the exercise of intellectual skill and knowledge. It is an unfortunately flippant conclusion in a study that otherwise has a lot going for it. Worse, in the court of public opinion, many people won’t necessarily make a distinction between what an auditor is and does, and what an accountant is and does.

It is therefore inevitable that the profession often finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain itself. It doesn’t matter that our most immediate stakeholders – board members and investors – know perfectly well the contribution of the audit and the role of the auditor. Government policy in any area is not exclusively formed by listening to, and then following, the views of knowledgeable stakeholders.

The perception of the accountancy profession can be contradictory. Surveys conducted by Edelman (admittedly commissioned by this Institute) report that the level of confidence in accountants among financial decision-makers is high relative to the level of confidence in other professions. Yet public opinion is all too willing to jump on the bandwagon when they think we get it wrong. For instance, the response to the exclusion of the former Chair of Anglo Irish Bank, Mr Sean Fitzpatrick, from Chartered Accountants Ireland was heavily skewed. Much of it focused on the length of time our proceedings appeared to take. No one seemed interested that the Director of Public Prosecutions wanted the State’s actions in the matter to conclude first, hence a seven-year delay.

Understanding this lack of interest is important because the effective communication of what the profession is and does relies heavily on the receptiveness of the public audience. There are lessons here from politics. Prime Minister “Get Brexit Done” Johnson and President “Make America Great Again” Trump are widely lauded for their communication skills, but that misses the point.

The genius of the messaging of Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump is not in their capacity for articulation – it is in their capacity to read the mood of the public. During the recent hustings in the Republic of Ireland, the major political parties would have fared better using slogans like “give people homes” or “hospital beds, not trolleys” instead of plaintive murmurings about futures we can look forward to, or an island for all.

Like the more successful politicians, the accountancy profession has to get better at reading public opinion and responding to that mood. If we fail to get across the ethical value and the competency involved in the work that accountants do, and the wider contribution made to society by virtue of that, future government policy towards accountants and auditors will be shaped by the negativity that is already out there.
Much is made of the challenge to the profession from things like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation. You can add to that list the suspicion with which the profession is viewed.

We now know that some don’t even consider that auditing is a profession at all.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.