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Publisher : Elsevier - Science Direct (الزویر - ساینس دایرکت)
Journal : Accounting Forum, 29 (2005) 455–473
Building on the argument that justice should be the transcendent principle in accounting, we argue that social accounting invokes notions of community, shared social values, and fairness in the distribution of social resources. These ideas are elaborated in relation to local government, which provides a window on how communities make decisions about distributing their social resources and the accounting processes which guide these decisions. Fieldwork in two large but contrasting English local authorities suggests that the potential of social accounting is not reflected in the predominant accounting systems in local government organisations, but in more subtle and successful forms of ‘enacted social accounting’. Its utility relates to the achievement of short-term social goals where social injustices persist and accountants, managers and politicians seek to accommodate financial pressures to protect the most vulnerable members of the community.We identify local government accountants as morally responsible for the further development of social accounting which envisions a future for local government, and establishes links between social justice, environmentalism and localism.
Social accounting is broadly understood as involving the preparation, presentation and reporting of information about ‘social’ factors or conditions, with the ‘social account’ being juxtaposed or competing with economic factors and values (cf. Cooper, Taylor, Smith, & Catchpowle, 2005; Gray, 2001; Neu, Warsame, & Pedwell, 1998). Yet while recent work in relation to a sustainability agenda has begun to discuss what accounting for ecological sustainability might incorporate (see for example, Ball & Milne, 2005; Birkin, 1996, 2000; Milne, 1996), there is a paucity ofwork which elaborates what might be at stake if accounting is to tackle issues of social justice. There is a similar discrepancy in the practice of social accounting, where whilst an increasing numbers of companies claim they are producing ‘sustainability reports’, a critical examination demonstrates that they have largely sidestepped the issue of accounting for, and reporting on, their social obligations or role in a more socially sustainable future (see Gray, 2001, 2002; Milne & Ball, 2005; Owen & Swift, 2001; UNEP/SustainAbility, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2004). Such emphasis on ecological sustainability in the social accounting literature seems curious given that, for many, the argument for sustainability is itself presaged on the more transcendental principle of justice (Pallot, 1991). Indeed, as Bebbington has argued (2001, p. 136), “the moral imperative of sustainable development (SD) is focussed on the achievement of social justice for the very poorest occupants of the planet.” The statutory and political roles of many public service organisations, and local government authorities in particular, mean that (unlike companies in a capitalist society) it is impossible for these organisations to avoid engaging with issues of social justice. Although we argue that their role has been diminished in recent years, local authorities in England, for example, have been central to the delivery of education and social services, and in responding to wider social crises such as race riots. The purpose of this paper is to explore whether there is a possibility of ‘social accounting’ in relation to local government, and what its impact might be. What we mean here is an accounting which, beyond concerns with an environmental agenda, helps us in understanding what is at stake in accounting for social justice. We argue that understanding existing and possible future accounting processes in public service organisations might be key to understanding what social accounting means, and whether it could make a difference. Given this central concern with the social, the paper builds upon an extant literature on social justice, or ‘fairness’, in accounting (Gaa, 1986; Lehman, 1995, in press; Pallot, 1991; Williams, 1987; and cf. Mouck, 1995; Shearer, 2002). In calling for a return to ethical approaches in accounting research, this body of work has explored how theories of justice translate in an accounting context (Lehman, 1995, in press; Pallot, 1991; Williams, 1987). Pallot (1991) in particular sought to stimulate discussion by proposing ‘fairness’ (i.e. justice) as the “transcendent principle in accounting” (Pallot, p. 202). We see the aims of this work as consistent with elaborating the aspirations of a social accounting agenda (see for example Bebbington, 1997; Gray, 2002; and for a critique see Cooper et al., 2005). The paper draws on some fieldwork on budgeting carried out in two local government authorities (see Ball, 2005; Seal, 2003; Seal & Ball, 2003, 2005). These organisations provide a windowon howcommunities make decisions about distributing their social resources. In order to draw out what is at stake in the distribution of social resources, we focused on contrasting organisations: ‘Southshire’ (an affluent county council in the South of England) and ‘Eastmet’ (a metropolitan authority in the North of England). The fieldwork in these authorities was carried out over an 18-month period (ending January 2004), focussing on budgeting in personal social services for children, families and other individuals with a range of personal, practical and emotional problems. The study was part of a wider project that researched how New Labour modernising policies have affected UK local government budgeting. We argue that budgeting in local government is an inherently political process (Wildavsky, 1986), characterised by a certain logic of democracy, which means that the process has an openness which contrasts with the “unobservable” (Neu et al., 1998, p. 268) nature of corporate activities and accounting processes. As the central accounting process in local government, budgeting is an obvious starting point for understanding the relationship between accounting and the social dimensions of local government. Apart from the routine observations of physical phenomena made during frequent visits to the case authorities, the research drew on two main sources of data. First, there is a wealth of documents produced by both local and central government, which, as public sector bodies, they have published on the web. The second and main source of data came from anonymized semi-structured interviews and observations of budgetary committees which provided insights into the less planned, less consensual and less reverential views of real organizational actors. The fieldwork period extended beyond the annual budgetary cycle and involved at least two sets of interviews with the main players, with appropriate time lapses. The main interviews were with local authority senior offices and council members (politicians) in the two local authorities; politicians and officials in central government departments who have an interest in local authority budgeting; and managers who are responsible for managing services at the operational level. In most cases, interviews were carried out by two researchers lasting about one hour per session. This method ensured that as accurate a record as possible was kept of the interview, and helped maintain a balance in the questioning. The aim of the case study approach was to give both an in depth view of the impact of any budget changes and take a longitudinal perspective. The paper contributes the idea of a new type of social accounting which we argue is a matter of enacted accommodation between financial discipline and social pressures. Recognising the inherent fragility of the modernising project (Mouritsen, Larsen,&Hansen, 2002), we show how social accounting can be seen as less a system and more a local “accomplishment”. The opportunity for accomplishment stems from the service delivery potential of budgetary controls combined with an implicit acceptance by key actors of their inherent public service ethos (Pollitt, 1993). These findings suggest that social accounting may have most impact where it is linked to specific social problems (cf. Cooper et al., 2005), and where it is produced outside of the mainstream performance and reporting system. The paper is structured as follows. The next section of the paper reviews the long running problems and attempted reform agendas in English local government. Drawing on a review of ‘fairness’ (social justice) and accounting literature, the third section sets out what social accounting for local government might incorporate. The fourth section of the paper draws on fieldwork at Southshire and Eastmet. In this section we set out our findings in relation to the budgeting process and the phenomenon of enacted social accounting, whereby the justice dimensions of accounting are recognised and budgeting is used an enabler to achieve social goals. A final section draws conclusions in relation to our understanding of social accounting and its potential.
نتیجه گیری انگلیسی
At the outset of the paper,we argued that public service organisations generally, and local government authorities in particular, exist principally for the purpose of the distribution of society’s social resources. Further, we argued that because these organisations are intrinsically engaged in agendas for social justice, then accounting processes in these organisations might be key to understanding what ‘social accounting’ means and how it might make a difference. The paper therefore set out to understand more about what social account is, and its utility, by learning from English local government. We did not seek, however, to reify local government organisations into some ideal. Our review of the problems and reform agendas and cold social climate under which local authorities labour, however, might go some way to explaining their seemingly commonplace existence. Our approach to understanding what social accounting might mean in the context of local government was to build on Pallot’s (1991) notion of organic accounting. Pallot’s work indicates that such an accounting would build upon an existing system (budgeting) to invoke a community perspective; shared social values; fairness in the distribution of resources; or a vision of what a just and socially sustainable community might look like. At the same time, the paper drew on our recent fieldwork in two contrasting English local government authorities, focussing on the budgeting process in the context of personal social services for vulnerable children and adults with personal, practical and emotional problems. This focus means that the study was limited in the sense that we cannot claim to have analysed a social accounting system per se. The budgeting process in local government, however, has long been recognised as a political process—in other words, it creates a space in which people may voice arguments for the distribution of resources and invoke the ‘social factors’ envisaged as key to a social accounting process. Worryingly, however, our fieldwork indicated that in spite of the involvement of Southshire and Eastmet in a ‘social’ agenda, the potential of social accounting is not reflected in the predominant accounting system. Budgeting in Southshire and Eastmet is fettered by the tyrannies of incrementalism and short-term decisions. There is a pervasive sense of financial crisis, which obscures the value of long-term thinking about the social costs of our current ways of life (manifest, for example, in “toxic babies” at Eastmet); whether these costs are too high; and what might be done about it. The particular contribution of this paper is the idea of enacted social accounting. Our findings indicate that social accounting might not exist at a systems level. Rather, social accounting seems to be a matter of what is enacted and accommodated within a system. We argued for a focus on episodes in organisational life in order to understand how social accounting might be mobilized and the possibility of change (building on existing struggles/ social problems or existing ethical reserves). At Southshire and Eastmet enacted social accounting is manifest in accountants, managers and politicians using the budget as an enabler for the achievement of social goals. At Southshire, the covert use of the budget by politicians to fund traveller’s children’s education demonstrates an enacted social accounting characterised by discretion rather than visibility in the face of a hostile constituency. At Eastmet, accountants and mangers act to ensure funding for placements for toxic babies rather than publicising the chasm between (short- and long-term) resource needs for children’s services and the budget. At Southshire, managers similarly continue to pressure the budget system to enable the short-term funding to ensure that vulnerable children are looked after in a system which has avoided investment in long-term capacity. Enacted social accounting reflects politicians’, accountants’ and managers’ understanding of the moral dimensions of accounting systems. The utility of enacted social accounting relates to the achievement of short-term social goals where social injustices persist (travellers’ children who the educational system fails) or where particular social problems are manifest and visible (toxic babies). These conclusions echo the conclusions of Cooper et al. (2005) who suggest that social accounting as necessarily linked to contemporary social struggles and groups if it is to have impact. A key point to note from our findings is that social struggles may be manifest within as much as outside organisations. We have noted the cold climate which English local authorities must weather. Whilst it may be possibly be true as a generalisation that individual service users are self-seeking and short-sighted in relation to paying for welfare services, it seems that the people through whom their demands are channelled are able to reflect different attitudes and values. The corollary, as Stoker (2001) has noted, is that there may only be a handful of individuals engaged fairly directly and actively in local government activity, and who are really interested in the justice dimensions of providing services for vulnerable people. We see the further development of social accounting, however, as fundamentally constrained by the failure of managers and (particularly) accountants to engage more fully with their moral responsibilities towards a just society. Accordingly, we challenge local government accountants to engage with notions of social accounting, since they are implicated through their knowledge that they are “keeping the real values invisible” (Boyce, 2000, p. 30; and see Meyer, 1986) in the context of obvious areas that would be covered by a social account. The underlying motivation should be about confronting the appropriateness of economic models of governance, and acting out of a sense of moral responsibility in attaining a vision of a just society. In so doing, the question becomes whether there might be, beyond central government rhetoric, an alternative future for local government, which draws its inspiration from notions of social justice. Ultimately, we may wish to establish links between social justice, environmentalism and localism as these are all arraigned against globalising capital. We see social accounting in public service organisations generally as crucial to advancing an agenda for the social justice dimensions of sustainability. This paper has attempted to examine how social accounting might allow for extending the domain of social conceptualisation in relation to the institution of local government. We argue that there is scope for similar explorations in the context of health and other public services. Given our (optimistic) findings in relation to enacted social accounting, we also see empirical research into the ethical and social motivations of public service accountants and policy makers as potentially fruitful.