In the context of COVID-19, is cash still king when trying to balance government accounting sheets?

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Given the current pandemic and corresponding economic crisis, the question of what role cash plays in this new global paradigm is a conundrum that has government accountants scratching their heads.  The relevance of this conversation can’t be ignored as governments try to better understand their financial positions and determine whether to pursue accrual-based accounting or cash-based accounting.   

What does this mean for the public sector that is trying to plan ahead to fund public services and balance the government budget? Why would it be more advantageous for a government to pursue an accrual-based accounting method over a cash based one?  In a recent paper published by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and the International Federation of Accountants, Is Cash Still King?, talks about the benefits of an accrual-based accounting method. A virtual event organized by the Centre for financial Reporting Reform (CFRR) World Bank Vienna Country Office for officials from Ministries of Finance and Public Sector educators in Europe and Central Asia continued this conversation.

The foundation of good decision making is having the right information, particularly financial information. There is a global transition underway, where governments are moving from a cash to an accrual basis for their financial reporting. This is unsurprising given the benefits of accrual accounting.  

With cash-based accounting, transactions and revenue are recorded when cash is received and when cash is paid. Expenses are recorded when cash is paid to suppliers and employees providing a short-term snapshot of the cash flows alone. With accrual-based accounting method, income and expenses are recorded not based on actual movement of cash but based on substance of the transaction (for example, when income is considered as earned, or expense is treated as incurred irrespective of timing of cash receipt or payment) presenting a more fuller financial picture. 

‘Cash’ retains the ‘royal’ status even in accrual accounting as Cash flow statement is one of the standard financial statements in accrual accounting also. Cash flow statement is accompanied by several other financial statements which present a complete and comprehensive picture of state of affairs in a country. According to the International Public Sector Financial Accountability Index (IFAC and CIPFA 2018), the number of governments reporting on accrual will rise from 25% in 2018 to 65% in 2023.  This significant transition to accruals is set to primarily be led by countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The ongoing pandemic and economic consequences including the increase in government debt reinforces the value of correct accounting of ‘cash’ inflow and outflow into government coffers and also establishes the need for quicker migration to ‘accrual’ basis accounting irrespective of stage of economic development of the country. This will also help transition to accrual-based performance budgeting processes by governments, which switches the focus from ‘how much is spent’ to ‘what money is buying’. 

It is time for the public sector accounting fraternity globally to accelerate and do better.  Public finance professionals can achieve even more by engaging with colleagues from across the world to understand what systems, skills and planning will create an environment that maximizes the benefits derived from accrual accounting.  

Authors

Nouf Alazmi

Financial Management Specialist, World Bank in the Public Financial Management and Standards (EPSPF) Unit of the Governance Global Practice

Srinivas Gurazada

Global Lead, Public Financial Management

Patrick Piker Umah Tete

Senior Financial Management Specialist, The World Bank

Alexander Metcalfe

Head of Public Sector Policy, ACCA

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