Government accounting at crossroads: Emerging opportunities during COVID-19
COVID-19 presents opportunities for governments to improve their accounting practices. Image: Dina Morozova/Shutterstock
Government accounting and financial reporting are at a crossroads today. Providing information on how much cash is received into treasuries and paid out for goods, services and transfers is not enough. Stakeholders are demanding more accountability and engagement in public finances. Governments are spending large sums of money to tackle the health emergency and to implement massive fiscal stimulus programs in response to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, timely and quality information is necessary to better assess the financial health of governments and to communicate the financial consequences of the pandemic to all stakeholders. This can contribute to building the much-needed trust in governments and improve the effectiveness of their pandemic response.
The World Bank’s recent paper on the role of Government Financial Reporting in times of the COVID-19 Pandemic provides guidance to accountants and auditors on identifying opportunities to improve financial reporting within the existing systems. The paper also highlights the impact of the pandemic on government financial performance, position and cash flows.
Similarly, the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) Board and International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) released a COVID-19 Intervention Assessment Tool, which helps assess, evaluate and inform various types of interventions by governments. Another recent study by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) on Sustainable Public Finances through COVID-19 highlighted the critical need to record and manage the assets and liabilities being created through the below-the-line policy measures, such as guarantees and equity injections.
Some of the emerging lessons on government financial reporting during the COVID-19 crisis include the following:
- Financial statements information has been traditionally underutilized by governments. Going forward, balance sheet information can inform how to achieve an inclusive and sustainable recovery in the post COVID-19 world.
- Government accountants should more proactively demonstrate the value of financial statement information and why it should be analyzed in conjunction with statistical information.
- While ‘accrual basis accounting’ is necessary to prepare financial statements that provide a comprehensive overview of the impact of COVID-19, jurisdictions following ‘cash basis accounting’ can enrich their financial statements with supplementary information for better decision making.
- Comprehensive financial statements based on accrual-based accounting will contribute to debt transparency and improved decision making. For example, in the current situation where global public debt is projected to approach a record high in 2021, countries need to closely monitor their sources of funding and associated costs. Comprehensive financial statement information on debt is especially useful for making policy decisions.
- Annual and interim financial statements should be prepared on a timely basis in order for them to be useful to policy makers and help inform pandemic-related response financial decisions.
- Countries need to accelerate implementation of accrual-based accounting and financial reporting reforms, preferably aligned with the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) , to have more comprehensive and reliable financial information for decision making.
- Ministries of Finance need to ensure that the necessary systems and procedures, including Integrated Financial Management Information Systems (IFMIS) implementation, are in place to facilitate the recording of transactions and preparation of financial statements. These include consolidated ones with different levels of aggregation and even the whole-of-government financial statements where feasible.
- Financial statements that include information on the long-term fiscal sustainability, with a focus on the impact of the pandemic, are necessary.
- Strong coordination by the Ministry of Finance and Accounting Agencies with the auditors of government financial statements, i.e. Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), is critical. This is not only with respect to the preparation of audited financial statements but also in developing and implementing accounting and financial reforms such as migration to accrual-based accounting.
- Accounting and auditing agencies should regularly conduct business continuity assessments so that governments are ready to face future emergencies without detrimental effects on their operating capacity , and that essential and non-essential staff can work remotely when needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and how governments operate forever. By strengthening public financial management systems and protocols today, governments will be better prepared for an increasingly uncertain tomorrow.