Accounting the Most Effective Means of Achieving Accountability in Organizations

The term “accountability” can best be defined by Roberts and Scapens (1985) in the following manner: “Accountability in its broadest sense simply refers to the giving and demanding of reasons for conduct” (Roberts, 1991, P. 4). When connecting ‘accountability’ to accounting, they continue to observe that “accounting institutionalizes the notion of accountability; it institutionalizes the rights of some people to hold others to account for their actions” (ibid.), and that accounting, therefore, reflects social values, norms, conventions, and expectaitions. Accounting, in this sense, is a value system that binds its own ideologies on society.

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The role of accounting as manifesting a subjective and control-implementing discipline has long been realized. What this essay seeks to do is determine whether accounting is the discipline that is best suited to wresting control over organizations and people, or whether it should be replaced by another model more objective (perhaps) and more responsible and effective in achieving accountability. This essay aims to explore the subjectivity and bounds of the power claimed by accounting, and then proceeds to question whether an alternate form of expression could be found that would be more upright and partial in its dominion.

Accounting: A Constructivist Enterprise

Accounting is a discipline that is in flux, i.e. It is in constant momentum of evolution or development shaped by variables of the surrounding culture and environment. it, therefore, is not only changeable, but also capable of being changed.

Accounting, Miller and O’Leary (1987) argue, could be understood within Foucault’s equation of human knowledge = power. The human science (accounting included) exerts certain power over human individuals robbing them of certain aspects of their autonomy.

In this manner, accounting can be seen as a constructivist enterprise in that it serves to construct a particular field of visibility, i.e. constructing its domain in a certain way so that we see it from a particular angle rather than from one or other perspectives. Certain aspects of their territory are emphasized whilst others are ignored (Lehman, 2005). For instance, questions of wastage and efficiency are a point in case, or corporate accounts that publicize industrial actions such as “acquisitions, downsizing, spin-offs, globalization, increased market share, new and innovative technologies, outsourcing and the reduction of labor costs through relocating manufacturing facilities” (Miller and O’Leary, 1987, p. 239) whilst ignoring other issues, such as inveterate wastage of goods and reckless pollution. These issues would detract from that which the organization wishes to promote, and, therefore, they are ignored. As Chwastiak and Young (2005) point out, monthly or annual records only play on optimistic factors and elements of success. They ignore the phenomenon of the unbalanced distribution of wealth that consequents in global starving, violence, and death; it is their own corporate actions that are largely responsible for these factors and more — such as environmental pollution and poisoning of food with pesticides, nonetheless the accounting records of these corporations ignore these phenomena. They are either rationalized or shunted onto others — society as a whole — rather than onto themselves.

The organization, through its language of ‘accountability’ imposes certain perspectives whilst eliminating or attenuating others (See also Armstrong, 2002). From the nineteenth century onwards, members of the profession hedged themselves with a whole structure of calculative norms and standards that stood between them and the worker (and, certainly, between the lay person) obstructing the enterprise and obfuscating it. This process attributed accounting with a certain domination. Eventually, the power of the discipline, like Dracula, transitioned from the boss to the machine i.e. To the hieroglyphics and conventions of accounting placing an inhibiting influence on the very individuals who operated within the discipline.

Concluded Miller and O’Leary (1987):

Accounting can no longer be regarded as a neutral and objective process. It comes rather to be viewed as an important part of a network of power relations, which are built into the very fabric of organizational and social life. (p. 240)

The Language of Accounting and Scientific Management

Accounting theory and practice had been well in place by the 1930s. The norms and conventions, including the vocabulary, started creeping up around that time. Vocabulary included phrases such as “the standard cost,” “the variance analysis,” “the budget,” and “budgetary control.” Norms and conventions were put in place. Standard cost and budgeting pinpointed a set of responsibilities to the discipline, and the individual actor received his reputation according to how well he operated in conjunction to the discipline. Standard costing and budgeting, therefore, became innovations that defined the individual’s expertise vis-a-vis the field. This form of making all individuals accountable soon manifested itself as a form of social power — ‘domination’ to use Foucault’s vocabulary.

Individuals were described according to the norms of standard costing and budgeting — this delineated and asserted perimeters around his contribution to society. Statistical deviations from the norm placed individuals within certain parameters and also introduced social controls (such as eugenics, mental hygiene, and mental testing) to induce them to fit to ‘contributive’ and ‘efficient’ norms. It was in this way that accounting indirectly served as instrument of socio-political maneuvering and control. The great craze of efficiency was also denoted in one of the foremost philosophies of that period, William James’ pragmatism. Efficiency soon became imbued with ideological context too. Poverty and destitution represented losses for society as a whole. By defining people within constructs of ‘efficiency’ and promoting that efficiency, social welfare and society as a whole could be improved. Enter scientific management that defined individuals and resources as worthy of existence or not depending upon their efficiency.

It was the discipline of ‘scientific management – accounting historians unanimously agree — that introduced the concept of standard costing into the accounting literature. In Principles of Scientific Management, F.W. Taylor proposed that scientific management would take upon itself the task of replacing vagueness and other acts of human imagination and chaos with exact scientific knowledge of the extent of the wastes caused by human inaptitude and folly, and it would set itself the task of their systematic elimination. Other scientific managers came to similar conclusions and voiced identical sentiments. Harrison, for instance, modifier of cost accounting practices, opined that cost accounting had failed to achieve its purpose. The mission of accounting, as he saw it, was to direct the management’s attention to preventable inefficiencies so that steps could be taken to prevent and eliminate these (Bryer, 2006).

It was due to strenuous endeavors by scientific managers such as Harrison and others that standard costing became the means by which both workers and employers could be controlled and manipulated to achieve better work. It was the goad that pulled them in line and pupated them making them accountable to deep questions of responsibility. Money shaped them into a machine or a homogenous, undistinguished organism and budgeting and standard costing served as the lens through which individuals were perceived. Individuals became perceived in terms of rationality and efficiency, and it was the discipline of accounting, shaped by scientific management, that constricted humans into the perspective and, by doing so, foisted dominion over them.

As Agryris (1952) (in Young 2006) later asserted, accounting as a discipline depersonalized humans. He compared it to:

Hav[ing] reached the ultimate state of dwelling within an electronic tube and emerging only to shake a mechanical finger at erring human beings (Argris, 1952, foreword, in, p.582).

Agryris (1952) drew attention to the fact that different groups of people (such as “budget people,” “factory supervisors” and “employees” or “factory people”) had diverse perspectives on budgeting, and that accounting had pinned a negative construction on humans that was not necessarily correct. In other words, accounting could be seen as a constructivist discipline and as a way of inserting pressure on a hapless population.

The Behavioral Conception of Accounting

A behavioral conception of accounting soon came into existence, where Devine (1960), for instance, would argue that individuals are “caught in its thread of control” and that “accountants seem to have waded through their relationships to the intricate psychological network of human activity with a heavy-handed crudity that is beyond belief” (Miller & O’Leary, 1987, p. 258). Reform was demanded with the insistence that authority be re-transferred from a mathematical discipline to individuals themselves.

The budget may set organizational objectives but it is after all created by a coalition of people, and the discipline should be subsumed by “economic man,” rather than force people into the strictures of the budget.

What we have here, then, is a reversion from the objective of the person being worked on and squeezed into the format of a more effective and efficient tool to the ‘firm’ being demoted to the instrument of the person. Accounting had usurped norms and conventions to twist that individual to its standards. These were to reflect an increased level of efficiency and, by so doing, to increase output and productivity. Employer and social body alike were, thereby, to become more efficient and society was a whole would increase its prosperity. Systems of income and financial position would superimpose standards of normalization upon everyone within the firm. Accounting, thereby, had achieved Foucault’s definition of knowledge as power over people per excellence. By the 1950s, however, person as decision-maker replaced this vision of person as machine, and accounting still has power in our society, but a different sort of power. Likewise, accounting still possesses its constructivism (i.e. manner of perceiving a certain stranglehold on reality by emphasizing certain construct and demoting others), although its constructivist paradigm may have differed from that of, say, a century ago. Individuals are viewed, measured, and criticized within programmatic frameworks, and Miller and O’Leary (1987) suggest that accounting today can still be viewed as part of the heritage and structure (albeit slightly changed) of the traditional mode of power that it was in the early decades of this century. In other words, the slanted domination of accounting remains.

Accounting as Form of Lens

The fact that accounting can be perceived as a subjective discipline that has its particular perspective and language is a view that is emphasized by Ezzamel, Lilley, and Wilmett (2004) who argue that accounting inscriptions serve as a certain form of hieroglyphic and semantic control via organizations over people.

Using the company Britech as an example, Ezzamel et al. (2004) demonstrated how writing as representation emphasized certain structures and processes whilst de-emphasizing others, and how all semantics and forms of writing (or speech) serve to do the same. Ezzamel et al. (2004) explored the option of alternate accounting measure and practices, accentuating the role played by human agency in these processes, before elaborating their understanding of the power of accounting inscriptions in human life. Britech, Ezzamel et al.’s (2004) case-study, in question, introduced a newer set of accounting standards that would reflect their new paradigm of environmental change.

In 1989, the managers of Britech decided that accounting would be extended to firstly incorporate new measures that would emphasize concern for quality and value; and secondly would extend these more detailed measures and to target them all across the board so that their influence was felt even by the shopfloor operators. To that end, processes conceptualized as “market pull” became promoted as the new entities around which managers and employees would focus their attention. Accounting and business terminology were mobilized to spell out the financial benefits that would accrue from “build to- order”: “reduced working capital employed; reduced risk of incorrect model mix; reduced total cost; improved responsiveness; superior quality; improved revenue” (Manufacturing Strategy Document; Ezzamel et al., 2004, 800).

A shift got into effect between obsession on man-hours and labor costs to inventory cost and stock ratio. Vocabulary was added and deleted, and swerves in perspective and corporation conduct occurred. New measures were implemented to inform decision making, and to incorporate a new holistic vision. This new alternative constructivist manner of perception was implemented right down from top level to shopfloor. This was supplemented by the adopting of a new model: the four dimensional approach to performance management based on the European Foundation of Quality Management (EFQM). What Britech served to do, according to Ezzamel et al. (2004), was to serve as case study signifying the importance of inscriptions on shaping people’s activities and judgment, and that by shift in vocabulary or semantics an entirely different construct of perception, thought, and behavior could be created. What we see here, in other words, is that written measures are at the center of power / knowledge relations, and deployment of new methods creates an alternate representation.

Most interesting is the observation of Armstrong (2002) to this effect that management accounting technique is an endeavor to grapple with a reality that it has to concretize into its own specific language in order to understand it and to deal with it according to its perspectives. Having done so, however, this interpretation results in a lopsided, one-sided, and simplistic representation that is then imposed on others. It is precisely because this interpretation is so simplistic and because it is such an inadequate and clumsy caricature of experience (or reality) that the consequences of managing reality through this lens become dysfunctional in so many ways. Examples are the oxymoron of activity-based cost management, which can only indicate a short-run cost savings whilst resulting in long tem lost capabilities.


Whilst textbooks and business managers consider accounting to be the most important management control system, modern scholars consider its role and position to be subjective and, consequently, problematic. Most argue, that accounting, by placing a specific controlling lens on reality, serves as one among many control systems. Marx, in fact, argued that modern accounting lies at the core of capitalist control of modern business enterprises (Bryer, 2006), and Weber would have seen it as conducive to history’s guilty rationalization of man. Marx was not far wrong for, as we have seen, the discipline of accounting served as instrument for scientific management to convert people into machines and to judge them (and eliminate them) according to their standards and outputs of efficiency. Western society, particularly that of the U.S., many would argue (and with tremendous merit) is not much different today.

For change to be achieved, Marx and his followers placed their attention on history and on social forces of capitalism. According to Bryer (2006), however, the issue lay not so much with control of labor forces, per se, but with understanding and control of accountability of the labor process. The aim should be the collective worker’s control of the boardroom and the corporate structures, and central to that control, he concluded, should be an understanding of accounting for accounting is the “business of capitalism.” Once an understanding of accounting, per discipline, is achieved, control can be wrested and usurped over the labor process.

Since we are ultimately human, perhaps we are always constrained to perceive our existence in this format, for taking Armstrong’s (2002) stance, practitioners of accounting endeavor to constrict their environment into some form of understanding. True, doing so results in simplistic forms and in dysfunctional consequences, but an alternate grasp of reality might result in alternate forms of simplistic understanding, constructivist forms of interpretations, and errors. Most of us buy into this form of management, however erroneous and subjective it be, for we see reality in this way. Another perspective of reality may not be necessarily truer or better, or achieve greater accountability in the organization. As biased and subjective humans, we are prone to perpetrating errors and, are, ontologically, debarred from seeing reality as it is. The current accounting schema is simply one form of trying to grapple with human existence and to press it into a more manageable and order-producing environment.


Armstrong, P. 2002, “Management, Image and Management Accounting. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 13, pp. 281-295

Bryer, R. 2006, “Accounting and control of the labour process” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 17, pp 551-598.

Chwastiak, M. & Young, J.J. 2005, “Silences in Annual Reports, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 14, 533- 552

Ezzamel, M., Lilley, S. & Willmott, H. 2004, “Accounting representation and the road to commercial salvation.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 29, pp. 783- 813.

Lehman, G. 2005, “A critical perspective on the harmonisation of accounting in a globalising world” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 16, pp.975-992.

McSweeney, B. 1997. “The unbearable ambiguity of accounting” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 22, pp. 691-712.

Miller, P. & O’Leary, T. 1987, “Accounting and the construction of the governable person.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 12, pp. 235-265

Roberts, J. 1991, “The Possibilities of Accountability” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 16, pp. 355-368.

Young, J.J. 2006, “Making up Users” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 31, pp. 579-600.