Accounting 101: the theatrics of compliance

I have written before about the increasing over-administration of universities and, more widely, of the the audit society as diagnosed in the 1990s by Michael Power.

The audit society, which was nascent in the 1990s, is flourishing today in many institutions, such as McGill.

A McGill example: obligation to understand and comply

The other day most McGill professors received an email from some nameless computer. The email, written in rather bullying language, reads:

“In light of your financial duties and obligations relating to Banner/Minerva FIS and as recommended by the Audit and Risk Committee of the Board of Governors, you must complete the Annual Declaration of Financial Compliance confirming your understanding of and compliance with Financial and Procurement Services Policies and Regulations.  Failure to complete the declaration by Friday, June 16th may result in suspension of your access to Banner/Minerva FIS.

In plain English, this email says that the basic tools required for research – i.e. the right to manage and spend research funds – will be taken away unless professors comply (yes, professors need to spend research funds – it helps with said research!)

Fine, how does one comply?

By ticking a box that confirms one’s “understanding of and compliance with Financial and Procurement Services Policies and Regulations.

The impossibility of compliance

Clicking a box is easy: but genuinely understanding and confirming compliance with 15 or so accounting documents is practically impossible.

I took the trouble to download them, and tried reading them. A thorough reading would take about a day – these documents, typically of between 3 and 10 pages (with a few longer), are written in dry accounting legalese, using terms that I don’t always understand, and often referring to further policies (I did not go down that rabbit hole, though).

Compliance as theatre

So, compliance is impossible. I can’t honestly tick the box, but if I don’t tick it, I lose the capacity to do my job.

This is similar to the lengthy conditions and legal language that often precede entry onto web sites. Most people click without reading or, occasionally, back out of the web site.

As a professor, I can’t back out without losing my capacity to perform my job. So I click, and hope for the best.

Why bother with this compliance theatre?

The only explanation I can find for this meaningless compliance ritual is Michael Power’s: this is an exercise in the appearance of risk management.

McGill has covered itself, laying responsibility for financial understanding and compliance on people who have no qualification in the area, but who cannot refuse to tick the box without curtailing their capacity to work.

As the Guardian article concludes: “Click to agree” could be changed for a system that better protects us, and that doesn’t make liars of us all.”

In the meantime, McGill professors must claim to understand and abide by a host of financial and accounting regulations that they only half understand, many of which are irrelevant to their day-to-day jobs, and that they are not really qualified to decipher.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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