Claiming the public interest

by Dr Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies and fellow of the Institute of Human Studies


The emergence of the topic of transparency on the public discourse scene, has changed the role of professions who deal with transparency. Now, when the expectations for governments and companies are to be more accountable, it makes sense that we ask for advice the people who know how to to that – accountants. In the past, accountancy was more hidden from the public space – it was more around efficiency, internal controls, financial management. Today, the growing demand for transparency and accountability gives the profession a new social role.

This new social role outlines the figure of the auditor-citizen whose job is not just to apply rules and follow standards. The auditor-citizen has to assure society that the public interest is preserved. This fundamentally challenges the ‘traditional’ perception of accountants – shy, nerdy and introvert – who are seen as positive protagonists only in anti-mafia movies and books. The accountant as a new public figure is a public intellectual who uses their professional knowledge and expertise to inform the public. He now gives interviews and statements not on whether rules have been followed but whether the interests of society are safeguarded.

This is manifested in one of the current challenges for the profession – the distinction between legal and legitimate. The modern society does not accept as legitimate actions that might be considered legal, like tax evasion, unethical corporate practices or disproportionate compensations. While this is true for both individual practitioners and accounting firms, it is particularly relevant for professional bodies. These institutions should play the role of a facilitator for the public discourse.

Some of the biggest social changes in the 19th and 20th centuries were driven by representation dynamics in public life. The labour unions, for example, became a key political and economic player that influenced the public agenda. Today, the demand for transparency gives a unique opportunity for professional accounting organisations to become a public speaker. This comes with a challenge to do so while preserving their independence and professionalism.

I see this as a great opportunity for the accountancy profession to reinvent its public interest role.

The legal profession, which for the most part is now seen as defendant of the public interest has gone through a similar experience in the 1960s. With the emergence of human rights and the proliferation of human right organisations, lawyers started to be seen as such professionals with a bigger social purpose. Lawyers are no longer perceived solely as defenders of corporate interests but broadly as protectors of the public and the public good of justice. The changing environment today provides similar opportunities for accountants and auditors – from improving transparency and accountability in organisations to empowering unprivileged and marginalised individuals.

Auditors could help educating the public in trust-building. More and more people are facing complicated issues that they do not understand and need professional advice to make sense of them. Accountants have deep understanding of how companies are run and should be run, how public sector accountability and transparency can be improved. For example, when a bank fails, how can we move beyond the cyclical discussions and blame games and have an intelligent dialogue to improve the financial system. We need a professional who has knowledge about financial decision-making, responsibility and what can be changed within an organisation. Enter accountant.

Every question that we don’t understand, we turn into a moral question. The underlying principle of democracy is that we are all equally informed and competent. In reality this is not always the case and we often distort an important topic into a moral dichotomy of who is right and who is wrong. Therefore, in situations like this, when transparency is becoming a dominant paradigm, the professional institutions have a golden opportunity to play a critical role in shaping the future of society.

Both journalism and the legal profession embraced similar opportunities and are now seen as defendants of wider stakeholder interests. Accountants should embark on similar journey towards more prominent public interest role. I want to be optimistic that the profession will make a choice to determine its role, instead of waiting for someone else to impose it.

Accountants and auditors could tell a different story about their own profession and should play an active role in the public dialogue.

Dr Ivan Krastev is the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and 2013–14 Richard von Weizekard fellow at the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin. He is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the advisory board of the ERSTE Foundation, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is also associate editor of Europe’s World and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy and Transit – Europäische Revue. He was ranked in the 2008 Top 100 Public Intellectuals Foreign Policy/Prospect List.