What we count and why it matters: The Audit Society

abacus; photo by 'Mike Cowlishaw' from WikimediaIn recent years, we have become obsessed with counting things, that somehow numbers will provide documentation of effort and impact, and ultimately improve what we do. Michael Power, a professor of accounting at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has something to say about this faith in numbers. In The Audit Society: Ritual of Verification (Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-19-829603-4), he critically evaluates the "audit explosion" that is sweeping innumerable fields--from health care and school reform to environmental policy. One clear illumination is the limits of audits, and what they actually mean for financial oversight. By extension, this should lead us to question the effectiveness in other fields. We have been handed audits, certifications, and other metric-driven systems as assurance.

Accounting information systems do not simply describe a pre-existing economic domain but, to varying degrees, serve to constitute a realm of facts, to make a world of action visible and hence controllable in economic terms. Creative accounting practitioners have always known that profits can be 'what you like' and that for every financial accounting rule there is a way to frustrate the purpose of the rule while appearing to comply with it. (p. 94, paperback, 1999).

However, the recent financial collapse would seem to provide some evidence for this. So, when we view forest certification and sustainable frameworks, we might want to bring a similar skepticism.

Power is not an 'easy read,' as he is prone academic prose and jargon, but it is worth the slog, and there are some pure gems.

Environmental auditing has emerged programmatically as a practice which regulatory systems demand. The practice has become an article of faith before clear conceptions of its precise role and scope have become institutionalized. This suggest that the very idea of audit is valued almost regardless of what is done in its name. (p. 64)

For anyone interested in accountability standards in any domain, this book is worth struggling with.

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