Accounting’s past, present and future: the unifying power of history

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Public sector accounting

Interest in the history of public sector accounting and accountability has grown during the past two decades as researchers make more use of key archives often containing extensive public records. Such research has evolved into a broader “accounting and the state”23 theme, increasingly concerned with “the on-going invocation of accounting in the everyday business of governing” (Graves and Radcliffe, 2001, p. 93). Recent published research has examined the adoption of double entry bookkeeping within European central governments, such as in France (Lemarchand, 1999, Nikitin, 2001)24 and in Portugal (Gomes, Carnegie and Rodrigues, 2008), as well as the adoption of “mercantile” bookkeeping in Britain (Edwards, Coombs and Greener, 2002; Edwards and Greener, 2003). Studies on accounting and the military have also contributed to the recent public sector accounting history literature (see, for example, Funnell, 2003, 2006, 2008, as well as the contributions on the theme that appeared in a special issue of Accounting History – Funnell and Chwastiak, 2010). Some scholars have studied the transfer of accounting technology (accounting techniques, institutions and concepts) from the military to other sectors of government or to the private sector, such as Lemarchand (2002), in the case of the French management accounting model, and Scorgie and Reiss (1997), in colonial Australia from 1788 to 1792. Cobbin (2009), on the other hand, explored the appointment of chartered accountants to an army accountancy advisory panel in Australia during World War II, thus illuminating how transfers of accounting technology to (rather than from) the military may arise.

The adoption of full accrual accounting in the public sector in many countries during the past two decades has stimulated research into public sector accounting more generally. The development has generated contributions to the historical accounting literature with a more contemporary historical focus and a concern with the interplay of accounting and public policy. In Australia, for instance, Potter (1999, 2002), Christensen (2002) and Davis (2010) have conducted in-depth examinations of the adoption of accrual accounting within the Australian public sector since the mid to late 1980s. Considerable scope exists for similar studies to be undertaken in other countries at different levels of government (for example, national or federal, state and local government). Identifying and assessing the impacts of such accounting reforms on individuals, organisations and communities would illuminate the contemporary relevance of such investigations. Buhr (2010), for instance, outlined worldwide developments in public sector accounting standard setting between 1980 and 2010.

There is also a need to examine the full dimensions of accounting and accountability in the local government sector, as confirmed by Sargiacomo and Gomes (2011). Recent investigations have included studies set in the USA (Moussalli, 2008),25 the UK (Brackenborough, 2003; Thick, 1999) and Italy (Sargiacomo, 2006). Sargiacomo (2006) used accounting records of the Commune of Penne from the late seventeenth century to enhance an understanding of the life and times of such feudal communities. In particular, Sargiacomo showed ways in which monies were spent within the community, thereby “elucidating the adopted social priorities and concerns of the time” (Sargiacomo, 2006, p. 475).

Public archives are more likely to survive, and may cover more extensive periods, than those of private organisations. We would therefore expect public sector accounting to continue to grow as a popular focus for historical research. Researchers need to consider the extent to which our understanding of accounting in general terms is adequately based on surviving records that relate in the main to the public sector. Much of the more recent research in this area tends to suggest that sharp distinctions between public sector and private sector accounting are diminishing. However, some of the theoretical perspectives used to provide a framework for research in the history of public sector accounting do not provide differential theorisations for entities in the public and the private sectors. This may lead researchers to look for similarities rather than differences, but well-grounded research into public sector accounting should continue to provide insights for historical understandings of accounting more generally.

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