Bureaucrats are a class by themselves. Some manage to wriggle out of the tight situation with their well-known penchant for eel-like behaviour when all else fails. Others take advantage of technical loopholes of which there are plenty in our scheme of things. The fact is that all rules in place are drafted by one set of bureaucrats for the benefit of another set of bureaucrats. Apart from the several slippery slopes expressly designed to derail potential auditors, there are loopholes aplenty. All in all, the fundamental question as to who is accountable and to who has yet to be satisfactorily answered.
Emperor Nero, of wretched memory, was reputed to have fiddled while Rome burnt. Though things in these times of ‘civilized conduct’ have evolved to a certain degree, fiddling of another kind goes on merrily while the ‘capital’ continues to flow piteously down the drain.
Ours is one of those societies where accountants are invariably regarded with an awe of sorts. It would appear that – other than adding and subtracting figures that ought to be their rightful task – our accountants are apparently also in the business of minting money they deal in so wantonly. Given the salaries they command and the callous manner in which they treat finances, the aforesaid is probably true. And when you mix an accountant with a bureaucrat the resulting concoction is just too hot to handle. And this gives rise to the classical question: are accountants accountable?
One is reminded of the episodes in the USA many years ago when accountants there were very much in the news, regrettably for all the wrong reasons. Major corporate giants like Enron, WorldCom and Xerox were being paraded for public ignominy with dizzying regularity all apparently because of the antics of their accountants. It appeared that accountants in question had been given so much freedom with the accounts under their charge that they freely resorted to taking all sorts of liberties with figures they were supposed to nurture. What appears to have occurred is that, once left in the company – and with the sole custody – of figures, the accountants considered it their prerogative to manipulate them as they wished! So, they went about it with gay abandon, thereby ensuring for their corporations added sheen, and for themselves and their favorite executives hefty bonuses. The shareholders, meanwhile, reveled in the sunshine of cooked-up figures and everyone had a rollickingly good time – that is until the bubble burst.
The big cataclysm is that, in a world that is more and more prone to specialization, the hapless man-in-the-street remains ever on the receiving end of things. What, then, is the wretched individual expected to do? Having been bitten left, right and centre, the person in question had considered the accountant to be his last line of defense. After the latest letdown staring in the face, who is he to trust now with whatever is left of his nest egg? A wise man once said, “War is too serious a business to be left to Generals alone”.
Logically, should one not fall back on the same principle and acclaim that, “Figures are too serious a business to be left to accountants alone”? Talking of figures takes one naturally to the subject of statistics. The latter art (?) has historically been prone to massive manipulation by one and all. Statistics, it has been said, can be used to prove anything. But one had always been inclined to make a distinction between statistics and accounts. Given the present state of affairs, is one to obliterate that distinction and lump the two together now? To let accounting go the way of statistics, so to speak!
The proverbial man-in-the-street is perennially on the receiving end – and prone to be hit where it hurts most. He has already learnt to his disadvantage that he cannot bank on his bank any more, the banks having started to believe that the depositor’s money is fair game. The stockbroker was, in any case, well beyond his reach or ken. Now the accountant has been relegated to the same jolly heap! The common man has always had this queasy feeling that he is being short-changed by the powers that be in the finance world. In having this feeling he can hardly be faulted. So long as decisions on high finance are made by shadowy individuals fiddling with figures in the backrooms of finance houses (or whatever they are called), the nest egg of the common man will continue to remain at risk.
Part of the blame, of course, can be passed on to the march of new technology. When accountants were obliged to juggle figures with pen and ink, there was a kinship of sorts between them – accountants and figures, that is! Playing fast and loose with figures in those days brought with it a certain sense of subjective remorse. The introduction of the impersonal computer has had the effect of setting the accountant free from such mundane considerations. One little tap on the key and he is well on the way to alter the very fate of the balance sheet entrusted to him. It is as simple as that.
One feels a bit of nostalgia for the good old days of ‘cash-books’ and ‘double-entry book-keeping’. Figures had sanctity of sorts about them then. An accountant would think twice before juggling with a set of figures, because each overwriting had to be justified and accounted for. In the case of computerized accounting in vogue today, it would appear obvious that nothing need be justified any more. On the contrary, sitting in front of an anonymous screen with figures of all genres at his fingertips, the accountant can, and often does, fiddle around with figures to his/her heart’s content. The perspicacious reader is at liberty to draw a moral out of this tale!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.