What is going on at ACCA?

A fortnight ago, ACCA’s president-elect, Ray Gardiner, wasout the nature of accountancy bodies, says Douglas Broom. dramatically sacked in a vote of no-confidence, literally hours before he was due to take office. The association has refused, on legal grounds, to be specific about the reasons for his sacking, while speculation about the motives for his removal ranges from the logical to the paranoid. A senior council member, Tony Cruse, has resigned and the association has agreed to his request to hold an independent inquiry into the handling of the disciplinary case which appears to have prompted Gardiner’s fall.

ACCA is no stranger to internal conflict. Its most vocal critic is Essex university professor Prem Sikka. But his ceaseless campaigns against the association have so far failed to generate a grounds-well for change among the membership. Indeed, apart from Sikka, it is rare for senior members to speak out publicly against ACCA. But privately, some senior council members say that the drive to make ACCA a world accountancy body has taken too great a toll. They paint a picture of a very successful organisation that seems to have failed to take some of its members with it.

There is no doubting ACCA’s success in the last decade. It has reinvented itself and, under the leadership of chief executive Anthea Rose, has become the fastest growing accountancy body on the planet. There are good grounds for saying too, that its commercial success has also enhanced the standing of its members. A decade ago ‘certifieds’ were often derided as a second-tier bunch. Prejudice is still rife in the profession, but ACCA has raised its profile to the point where it was its president David Bishop who brokered the last serious attempt to merge the institutes. In the counsels of the profession, ACCA now counts.

But at what cost? The Gardiner affair appears to have crystalised concerns among senior members about the way ACCA is now run. It has also re-opened a question many professional bodies have fudged for decades: just what are accountancy bodies really for?

Although it talks a lot about accountability and openness, some council members think ACCA is using these words in a dangerously businesslike sense. Those who think ACCA should be much more of a members’ body say it is in reality run more like a plc. And they have a point.

The Code of Practice for council members starts with fine words. ‘The ACCA council is the governing body of the ACCA; as such it is accountable to the members,’ it states. But later, in clause eight, the tone alters dramatically. Members are told they must take collective responsibility and warned against dissenting in public. The code states that council members have a duty to ‘… explain and support the policies formally adopted by council, even when these may differ from their individual views … refrain from making public pronouncements which are at variance with council’s formal position.’

Critics say these clauses explain the silence about the Gardiner affair.

Council members who disagree with the Gardiner no-confidence vote are obliged to defend it or to keep quiet. Authentic debate, they say, is stifled.

Of course, this is only a problem if you think ACCA should be run in a particular way. No company, certainly not one as successful as ACCA is, would dream of allowing its directors to publicly dissent from board decisions. Which brings us back to that question about what institutes are for.

The central problem is that this debate has never seriously taken place in any institute. Some of those in power fear to broach the question in case all their hard work to raise the professional status of their body is swept away in a tide of political faction fighting. Others argue that there is no need to raise the issue at all. They say the lack of popular support for campaigns like Sikka’s shows that members are quite content with the status quo.

Whoever is right, the issue refuses to go away. All accountants enjoy a good moan about their institute. Often it does not go beyond that. The challenge is to move the debate onto a grown-up level. The profession as a whole needs to be much clearer about why it belongs to its professional bodies.

Can a single body uphold the profession’s image and allow real public debate which airs divisions and animosities? Not if the Law Society’s experience is anything to go by. Its flirtation with populism split the membership and led to bitter factionalism. Solicitors now know how important it is to decide clearly what they expect from their professional body.

The Gardiner affair illustrates that accountants still have some way to go to appreciate just how important a question this really is.

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