Understanding the principles and history of social accounting and audit

History is not another name for the past, as many people imply.  It is the name for stories about the past. A. J. P. Taylor

I increasingly believe that to understand why things are the way they are and why they are not something else we have to know about the past and try to understand it.

I am currently helping to advise on a research programme called CommonHealth which is co-ordinated by the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.  One of the really interesting elements of the research is a look back at what happened with the community business movement mainly in Scotland in the 1980s and 90s.  It is extraordinary how we interpret the past in different ways adding and detracting bits and pieces to fit our view of the present.  The past is definitely open to interpretation but, if we manage to be as objective as possible, it can help us see the present and the immediate future with more clarity.

One interesting aside, and an issue that has arisen within the research project, is that the years ‘post-internet’ are much more widely accessible than the time before the internet which is sometimes overlooked as it involves reports and archives on dusty shelves…

Involvement in this research has recently led me to think about the historical roots of social impact assessment – where it has come from.  In this blog I want to consider the reporting on impact and in particular the historical development of the principles around social accounting and audit.

Long before the establishment of the Social Audit Network and back in 1993, Community Enterprise Lothian (who I worked for at that time) worked jointly with others to hold a conference in Edinburgh called ‘Counting Community Profit!: Defining and Measuring Community Benefits of Local Development and Business Enterprises’.  The conference attracted a number of important speakers – George McRobie (new economics foundation and Founder of the Intermediate Technology Development Group), James Robertson (author of ‘Future Wealth’ and ‘Future Work’), Rob Gray (then Professor at University of Dundee and author of ‘The Greening of Accountancy’) – to name just a few.

The conference was over-subscribed and pivotal in many ways as the Institute for Social and Ethical Accountability (ISEA) – now called Accountability – was formed shortly after and the new economics foundation went on to explore ‘social audit’ more and subsequently wrote the ‘Social Audit Workbook’ with John Pearce.  Those working in ‘social audit’ as it was known then, used much of what had been discussed in the conference to devise principles for ‘social audit’.

After further consideration following the conference ‘social audit’ adopted the following principles:

Multi-perspective: reflect the views of (all) those involved with or affected by the organisation.

Comprehensive: (ultimately) embrace all aspects of an organisation’s social etc. performance.

Regular: take place regularly (annually) and not on a one-off, occasional basis, and become embedded in the culture and operation of the organisation.

Comparative: offer a means whereby an organisation can compare its own performance over time; relate performance to appropriate external norms; and make comparisons with other organisations doing similar work.

Verification: audited by one or more persons with no vested interest in the organisation.

Disclosure:  findings made available to all stake-holders and published for the wider community.

The over-arching principle of continuously improving social performance.

It is interesting that the principles do not include measurability as it was recognised at the time that many social aims are not measurable in the sense that you use a standard yardstick and give it a numerical or standardised value.  Those pioneers in social accounting accepted that it would be a nonsense to try and measure everything – but where you can, do; and where you cannot, still try to assess the change in qualitative terms.

The above principles were espoused for quite a number of years.  In the mid-2000s connections were made with those keen on advocating Social Return on Investment and following a joint meeting in 2008 the fledgling SROI Network and the more established Social Audit Network (SAN) agreed to share a number of the same principles.  There was not complete agreement as SAN felt it was not possible to financialise all outcomes.  However, in the interests of collaboration a joint document (updated in 2010) was written and made publicly available.

Shortly after this meeting both organisations changed them slightly and adopted slightly differing principles to satisfy their differing audiences – the current Principles of Social Value have been published by Social Value UK (previously the SROI Network and the Social Impact Analysists Association). And for reference check out the eight SAN principles.

So what does mean for us now?

Certainly principles around social impact are important especially with the expanding interest in enterprises with a central community or social benefit.  Both approaches – Social Accounting and Audit; and Social Return on Investment – use their respective set of principles to assess the veracity of social reports using one or other of the approaches.  My problem with both sets is that ‘process’ has got in the way of ‘principles’.  That is some of the ‘principles’ are really about the process itself.

I would like to suggest that with the benefit of hindsight – which is where this blog started – we should have a rethink about the principles of social impact.  Concurrent with the evolution of these principles we should also look at the key aspects of all organisations to see if they are socially responsible.  Those key aspects being how an organisation treats its staff and volunteers; how is it governed; how it uses surplus; its financial sustainability; its impact on the environment; and how it affects the local economy.

By building on what has happened in this field of social impact in the past, we should be able to develop tools, approaches and key principles for the future.

The ‘stories about the past’ provide the bedrock for understanding the present, and the development of the future.  Is this what progress is?

Finally – and I hesitate – I would like to suggest a tweaked set of principles for social value…

Clarifying the true change and purpose that an organisation is working towards Focus
Tracking changes so that comparisons can be made over time and between organisations Improvement
Embedding the social impact process and making it central to what the organisation does Regular
Considering more than one view in assessing social value created by an organisation Multi-perspective
Demonstrating that data and information used is important and significant Materiality
Checking that the interpretation of the change that happens is as true as possible Verification
Involving stakeholders in assessing change that happens Engagement
Being open and disclosing what an organisation has achieved or not Transparent

Bingo!

Alan Kay, Social Audit Network (SAN) www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk