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Financial Accountability & Management, 27(2), May 2011, 0267-4424

Foreword MAKING COMPARISONS IN GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTING


EUGENIO CAPERCHIONE AND IRVINE LAPSLEY
This special issue of FAM is based on a selection of papers from the 12th biennial Comparative Governmental Accounting Research (CIGAR) conference which was held in Modena in May 2009. The papers included in this special issue reveal the diversity of approaches deployed within the CIGAR network. While the focus of CIGAR is explicitly on governmental accounting systems, its approach is committed to understanding the complexities of such accounting practices through the comparative method. The nature of governmental accounting is such that academic researchers are unlikely to deploy experimental research in the investigation of such practices (Hantrais, 2009, p. 6). The government domain is heavily circumscribed by policy makers and there are constraints which they may place on researchers to prevent the publication of sensitive data. However, the prevailing trend of transparency in public finances makes significant amounts of publicly available data accessible by researchers interested in this area and this is reflected in the papers selected for this special issue. Comparative research, widely defined, has long been depicted as dominated by the qualitative tradition in social science research (Ragin, 1989, p. 2). Prima facie, the nature of accounting practice in government accounting may be expected to foster more quantitative studies of international practice. However, the limitations of quantitative studies in other subjects apply equally to comparative studies of governmental accounting, despite the presence of accounting numbers and reports. In particular, the influence of different cultures on the meaning of accounting practices, and the manner in which government accounting numbers may shape different social and cultural contexts is a formidable challenge for researchers. For example, Hantrais (2009, p. 53) points to the slippery nature of this concept and the difficulties of its measurement. Underpinning ideas of culture may be hidden assumptions, particularly over fads and fashions; the existence of cultural borrowings; and the transposition of results of comparisons in different cultural settings and a certain naivete of interpretations of results (Usunier, 1998, pp. 15263). These challenges are greatest where foreign nationals who are not familiar with their study settings undertake comparative
The Special Issue editors are respectively from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia; and the University of Edinburgh. e-mail: eugenio.caperchione@unimore.it and Irvine.Lapsley@ed.ac.uk
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international research. However, there is a rich tradition within the CIGAR network of genuinely international studies, not only in terms of scope, but also in terms of research team composition (Jorge et al., 2011). This is reflected in the papers included in this special issue. The projects undertaken within the CIGAR network are both spatial and temporal comparative research and both types of studies are included in this special issue. First, we consider the spatial studies. The study of local government accounting by Adam (from Germany), Mussari (from Italy) and Jones (from the UK) has the hallmarks of a classic spatial international comparative CIGAR study (Adam et al., 2011). This study may be regarded as focusing on an area of the public sector which is well researched, but Adam et al. have conducted a novel study. In the first instance, they focus on the highly topical area of art and heritage assets within government. Secondly, the research approach adopted is innovative. Adam et al. focus on the city as a research object. This is a research focus of increasing relevance (Lapsley et al., 2010). For art and heritage assets, Adam et al. examine the accounting practices of two cities in Germany, Italy and the UK with significant art and heritage asset holdings. Despite the pressures towards international convergence on accounting practice (Fuertes, 2008), this study reveals the complexity of practice, with significant diversity of practice and evident tensions between the institutional environments of continental European accounting practice and the Anglo-Saxon world of accounting. A further comparative study by Jagalla, Becker and Weber examines the accounting practices of states within the Federal Republic of Germany (Jagalla et al., 2011). The particular focus of this study is on the adoption of accrual accounting by these entities. The authors acknowledge that the debate on whether government bodies should or should not adopt accrual accounting is a longstanding one, stretching back to the early 20th century. However, this debate remains topical (Lapsley et al., 2009). While this study focuses on the instrumental attributes of accrual accounting it was conducted as a qualitative study, with interviews with 42 key actors (25 accountants and auditors, 7 politicians and 10 management interviewees). This study revealed little interest amongst their interviewees in certain declared benefits of accrual accounting: compliance issues, inter-generational fairness and the provision of information for creditors. However, it could be said that many of their interviewees would not necessarily have identified with such issues. Nevertheless, this study has important information on the receptivity of these federal states to accrual accounting, with a positive identification with improved cost awareness and the adoption of business like thinking. The final comparative study is very distinctive. Pavan and Lemme (2011) address fundamental issues of public accountability in democratic society. Their particular focus is the revolution in the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and the impact of these IT developments in creating a new public space for the discharge of public accountability. This

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is an ambitious undertaking. The authors proceed by a comparison of the USA and Italy. The USA was selected as the reference point of this study as the most significant and leading democracy of recent times. The other country Italy is the one best known by these researchers as Italian citizens. The style and manner of this research is very distinctive with an investigation of information available in digital format, and an analysis of the textual structures of these budget documents. This analysis reveals a failure to disseminate financial information which has facilitated citizen involvement and scrutiny of government finances in both countries but for different apparent reasons. In particular, underpinning US developments were broader concepts of end users the citizen as someone who votes, pays taxes and uses public services. By comparison, in Italy, the citizen as taxpayer was the dominant theme. This is a highly imaginative and distinctive contribution to the field of governmental accounting and a reminder that a preoccupation with technical accounting matters may obscure big issues. This special issue also has two CIGAR studies in the temporal tradition. The first of these is a study of one of the most widely debated issues of recent decades the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model of building infrastructure assets. Heald and Georgiou (2011) deliver a tour de force on the challenges in the development of government policy on PPP. Their critique of the initial policy of assessing the size and disposition of risks and rewards as criteria for the determination of the appropriate accounting treatment of PPP projects is both rigorous and devastating. The inevitability of the different motivations and accounting policies and practices resulted in what Heald and Georgiou (op.cit.) call an asymmetry of accounting practices. The subsequent shift to control as the decisive criterion in the determination of how PPP assets are recognized and accounted for has yet to be scrutinized by the detailed study of actual practices. However, Heald and Georgiou (op.cit.) offer a penetrating critique of the ambiguities in the determination of what constitutes control in accounting, which will undermine the apparent objectivity of the new control decision criterion on whether to recognize the asset or not and the manner of that accounting practice. Finally, the authors of this paper analyze the differences between the accounting treatment of PPP assets as recommended by financial reporting guidance and highlight differences between government accounts and internal planning. This lack of coherent systems of accounting which fully articulate with each other runs counter to the aims and aspirations of reformers of government accounting practice. Finally, in this special issue, we have a paper by Garseth-Nesbakk and Mellemvik (2011) which follows the temporal tradition of comparative study. In this paper, the authors examine a feasibility study of the introduction of accrual accounting by the Norwegian government. This study is a qualitative research investigation with open-ended interviews with a series of key actors in the project to devise and test a model of accrual accounting for the Norwegian government. This is an interesting study of policy development, the particular focus of which is the idea of materiality in government accounting. To some this may appear to

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be a taken for granted feature of accounting. In this paper Garseth-Nesbakk and Mellemvik reveal the ambiguity of practice in implementation with significant impact on the quantification of events in accounting statements. In conclusion, this special issue highlights a range of issues within the sphere of government accounting. There are issues over the distinctive nature of assets within these organizations. There are continuing debates over both policy development and policy implementation. There are challenges for reformers at different levels of the state. There remain issues over accounting regulation. Fundamental debates over issues such as the adoption of accrual accounting in government, remain lively topics, despite their widespread adoption. There are also significant challenges to policy makers, government entities and the research community over the impact of ICT in government. In all of this, the comparative approach offers interesting and challenging insights into the world of government accounting.
REFERENCES
Adam, B., R. Mussari and R.Jones (2011), The Diversity of Accrual Policies in Local Government Financial Reporting: An Examination of Infrastructure, Art and Heritage Assets in Germany, Italy and the UK, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May), pp. 10733. Fuertes, I., (2008), Towards Harmonization or Standardization in Government Accounting? The International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board Experience, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, Vol.10, No. 4 (December), pp. 327436. Garseth-Nesbakk, L. and F. Mellemvik (2011), The Construction of Materiality in Government Acccounting: A Case of Constraining Factors and the Difficulties of Hybridization, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May), pp. 195216. Hantrais, L. (2009), International Comparative Research: Theory, Methods and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan). Heald, D. and G. Georgiou (2011), The Substance of Accounting for Public-Private Partnerships, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May), pp. 21747. Jagalla, T., S.D. Becker and J. Weber (2011), A Taxonomy of the Perceived Benefits of Accrual Accounting and Budgeting: Evidence from German States, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May), pp. 13465. Jorge, S., E. Caperchione and R. Jones (2011), Introduction to Volume 4: Comparative International Governmental Accounting Research (CIGAR): Bridging Researching and Networking, in R. Jones (ed.), Public Sector Accounting (Sage Library in Accounting and Finance, Four-Volume Set, forthcoming). Lapsley, I., R. Mussari and G. Paulsson (2009), On the Adoption of Accrual Accounting in the Public Sector: A Self-Evident and Problematic Reform, European Accounting Review, Vol.18, No. 4, pp. 71923. , P. Miller and F. Panozzo (2010), Accounting for the City, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 30524. Pavan, A. and F. Lemme (2011), Communication Processes and the New Public Space in Italy and the USA: A Longitudinal Approach, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May), pp. 16694. Ragin, C. (1989), The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (University of California Press). Usunier, J.-C. (1998), International and Cross-Cultural Management Research (Sage).

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