Many readers will remember the 1980s TV series Do They Mean Us? Presented by
former Fleet Street editor, Derek Jameson, the show featured the views of our
European neighbours on the eccentricities of British life. These were rarely
complimentary and often baffling prompting Jameson’s catchphrase ‘Do they mean
us? They surely do.’
The show worked well because seeing ourselves as others see us is always a
worthwhile exercise. That’s why ICAS decided to commission independent research
into public perceptions of accountants. The result was our report Bean counters
or business leaders?
The research canvased the views of 1,623 people, divided into three main
groups the general public, the knowledgeable public (for example, those who
work with accountants) and investors. The sample was split proportionately
across the UK.
The aim was to determine how ICAS could further develop CAs and to inform our
strategy, but also to establish to what extent traditional notions of
‘professionalism’ are still held by society in relation to accountants.
Work to do
Overall, the report tells a positive story. Accountants are strongly
associated with providing a high standard of work, having good professional
judgement, being adequately regulated and having up-to-date technical knowledge.
There is work to do in other areas, however.
First, the results show the responsibilities of qualified accountants
employed in business are seen as primarily task-led, rather than strategic.
Secondly, relative to non-business professions, accountants are not strongly
associated with having concern for the public interest. Finally, while most
respondents believe that qualified accountants carry out their duties with
integrity and behave ethically, this view is not strongly held.
The knowledgeable public and investors were asked for their opinions on the
roles and responsibilities of professionally qualified accountants with a
specific reference to those working in a senior role in business. In general,
their understanding is that professionally qualified accountants have mainly
task-led responsibilities, rather than an ‘overseeing’ strategic or corporate
cultural role within organisations.
Responses from the knowledgeable public and investors see the main
responsibilities of an accountant in business as corporation tax and VAT,
producing accurate monthly management and financial accounts, preventing fraud
and dealing with tax and NI contributions. While senior accountants may have an
oversight role in relation to these activities, it poorly reflects their
involvement in directing the strategic aims of business. Correspondingly, the
ethical aspects of the role of a senior accountant in business are only
recognised by a low proportion of respondents.
Approximately half of the two groups suggest that a qualified accountant
provides sound ethical advice on the operation of a business, while just one
third identified contributing to the ethical culture of the organisation as a
key role. This suggests that developing and maintaining an ethical business are
not seen as a secondary aspect of their role.
All respondents, including the general public, were asked about the extent to
which they believe that the profession makes a valuable contribution to society.
Overall, the view was positive, but this is only moderately held. Levels of
agreement on this issue were higher among the knowledgeable public a positive
finding, given their greater experience of working with professionally qualified
In general, it was felt that accountants act within the law and abide by
their professional code of conduct. They are also seen as acting with integrity.
However, there is some doubt over the extent to which accountants have the
public interest at heart in particular whether they would place the public
interest before the interests of employers, clients or shareholders.
Responses from the knowledgeable public and investors indicate that the
involvement of a qualified accountant in a business has an impact on the level
of trust that the business operates in an ethical manner, although agreement on
this is only moderate.
So, do they mean us? They surely do. For the most part, professional
accountants can be reasonably pleased with the research.
They are acknowledged as professionals who provide a high standard of work
and have a positive impact on business and the business environment. It’s clear
though, that there are challenges.
Accountants don’t just crunch numbers. They lead business, grow business,
develop business. That is obviously not a message that is widely understood.
It’s perhaps more understandable that people would associate doctors and
teachers with providing more of a public interest role than professional
Nonetheless, it’s important to stress that the integrity of investment and
the corporate world has a direct impact on all of our pensions and savings.
Accountants play a major public interest role in maintaining confidence.
Finally, ethics. A commitment to ethical behaviour is a core element of any
professional accountant’s training and continuing development.
It can seem to many like a humdrum and drearily worthy topic. It’s not. If
one thing will define how professional accountants are viewed by the public,
it’s doing the right thing, no matter what the opposition.
Views on accountancy bodies
Professional accountancy bodies in the UK are seen by the majority of
respondents to the survey as having a positive role within the profession.
They serve to heighten the level of trust placed in the accountancy
profession and are seen as encouraging their members to act ethically.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the respondents have high expectations of the
regulatory and disciplinary functions of professional accountancy bodies,
particularly in relation to dealing with complaints about members.89% of the
general public and 80% of both the knowledgeable public and investors expect
professional accountancy bodies to handle complaints about members.
Professional accountancy bodies are also expected to be proactive in ensuring
members keep their professional knowledge up-to-date and in monitoring the
conduct of their members and taking action where there are shortcomings.
These roles are viewed as sitting comfortably alongside the role of
professional accountancy bodies as a source of guidance and support for members.
In parallel with views expressed by respondents about professionally
qualified accountants, professional accountancy bodies are not strongly
associated with having a public interest role.
Only 42% of the general public expect professional accountancy bodies to
lobby in the public interest, with the knowledgeable public and investors having
even lower expectations (32% and 33% respectively).
What conclusion can professional accountancy bodies draw from this?
Well, it appears that they are perceived as being passive, rather than active
supporters of the public interest – not doing wrong as opposed to actively doing
David Wood is executive director, technical policy at
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