Ethical Dilemmas and Paradoxes in Assurance Practice: A New Approach that Acknowledges Compromise, Trust and Relationality
Assurance of corporate sustainability reports relies on the idea of a third-party assuror who is independent and objective. The assurance approaches typically used by accountancy companies have been developed over many years and are supported by internal as well as external standards. With the help of these standards, the assuror provides credibility to the public statements of the companies through a thorough checking of statements, data and supporting systems. However, the orthodox approach overlooks or neglects the many paradoxes and dilemmas that are the daily experience of most assurors, e.g. what it means to be independent and objective while at the same time trying to develop a relation with the client. There has also been criticism of assurance, as currently practiced, as being too rigid, too predictable and providing too few benefits to the companies assured. In this thesis, the author explores why and how his own assurance practice differs from the more orthodox approach. This has led to the description of an alternative approach to assurance, called the ‘artist’ approach that takes the ethical dilemmas and paradoxes into account. The approach has been developed and described on the basis of the author’s own experiences using a critically reflexive methodology. The methodology builds on personal narratives and iterative feedback from fellow researchers and supervisors. The development of the ‘artist’ approach is based on: 1) a critical investigation into the idea of ‘compromise’, which leads to an alternative way of thinking about the practice of assurance; 2) a critical investigation into notions of trust and distrust, and power relations, and the effect of these on assurance work; and 3) a concept of ‘stumbling together’, which is built on relationality and ‘essential references’, where the assuror and the assuree are mutually exploring the territory. In the ‘artist’ approach, the values of independence and objectivity are compromised. The assuror actively strives to build personal trust based (at least in part) on technical kinship. Through this trust the power dynamics of the ‘insider’ and the ‘outsider’ are contained; indeed, the notion of ‘insider/outsider’ is forgotten in the moment. Independence has turned into interdependence, and objectivity into mutual engagement, where both assuror and assuree together might discover new issues not known to either of them before. In the orthodox approach, the assuree is ‘called to account’, whilst in the artist approach, the assuree is invited to ‘give an account’. This process of collaborative exploration allows the potential for radical new discoveries, for both assuror and assuree. The ‘artist’ approach as described here has affinities with complex responsive processes of relating as explained by Stacey. In the ‘artist’ approach, the craftsman approach is always paradoxically present at the same time, and the approach makes use of the same tools and the same framework as the craftsman approach. A wider understanding and application of the ‘artist’ approach can potentially lead to significant changes in the way assurors act, and hopefully to assurance results that are more relevant and useful.