Numbers count in combatting the impact of COVID-19

  • Date

    Wed 9 Feb 22

portrait photo of Prof Ileana Steccolini

The key role of accounting in targeting resources to battle the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is revealed in a special issue of an international journal co-edited by an Essex Business School academic.

Professor Ileana Steccolini is part of the international team who co-edited the special issue of Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal titled The pervasive role of accounting and accountability during the COVID-19 emergency.

As the pandemic placed mounting pressures on Governments and businesses alike, accounting and management systems proved key to delivering swift responses.

The special issue shows that accounting and management systems provided the necessary tools for planning and anticipating, as well as being adaptable in the face of emerging evidence, ensuring organisational and community resilience against the unknown.

Professor Steccolini said: “The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the central roles played by numbers, figures, calculations in making and justifying decisions, in supporting our understanding of an ever-changing context, and in holding decision-makers to account.

“When we launched the call, we received 180 papers from scholars from across the world, and we selected 31 papers for two special issues. This review is a testimony to what was happening, globally, in organisations, firms, governments, and our societies, and the roles being played by numbers and accounting systems in those unprecedented times.”

Key findings include:

  • How control mechanisms played a critical role in supporting organisational responses to the crisis, facilitating internal coordination, helping redefine operational practices, and giving visibility to objectives and results.
  • How accounting systems can support a stronger reflection on organisational resilience, not only efficiency; and how certain control systems were completely redefined in a very short time span to reflect new “important” Key Performance Indicators concerning “capacity” to offer services, such as bed occupancies, test kits or ventilators, in hospitals.
  •  How constraints and hardships may be placed on organisations by their accounting systems when facing shocks and exceptional circumstances. For example, the move to smart working in some cases brought about uses of control systems with employees feeling more closely monitored, leading to increased stress.
  • How the pandemic has laid bare existing inequalities and created new ones, with accounting in some cases being used to perpetuate inequities, but in others contributing to addressing and repairing them. For example, various studies point to the critical issues emerging in the systems for allocating state help during COVID-19, whereby vulnerable categories have not always been supported properly.
  • Finally, importantly, several papers in the special issue have provided detailed accounts on how governments and policymakers have coped with the crisis by creating new forms of accountability to the public, and by, in turn, keeping citizens accountable for their contribution to the good “functioning” of public policies against COVID-19.

The global scope of this review has identified how different histories, styles of leadership, local cultures have given rise to very different approaches to coping with COVID-19 in different countries, and in the ways in which government proven to be more or less accountable for them.

Professor Steccolini adds: “Under crises, national cultures, histories, and leadership may play important roles in how we use calculations, figures, numbers to shape collective actions and to account for it.

“It is so important to develop and explore new forms of measurement, calculation, and reporting, and make sure they are able not only to focus on traditional aspects such as efficiency or economy, but also reflect societal values, such as resilience, sustainability, social responsibility, or equity, to make sure that the tradeoffs across those values are evident. This is something the accounting profession has started to invest on, but more needs to be done.”

In shedding new light on the strengths and weaknesses, risks, and potentials of accounting, accountability, and calculative practices under a global pandemic, this special issue provides a bridge to the post-COVID-19 world.